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The Northwest’s forest plan: 20 years of fighting

Northern Spotted Owl

Northern Spotted Owl Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

William Faulkner got it right. Just ask a Northern spotted owl. "The past is never dead. It's not even past," Faulkner famously wrote in "Requiem for a Nun." 

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Clinton administration document designed to save Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, wild salmon and the many other critters that live in the Northwest's old-growth and mature federal forests. The federal Record of Decision was published on that date in 1994.

"I think it has been a success story," says Dominick DellaSalla, president of the Ashland, Ore.-based Geos Institute and of the Society for Conservation Biology's North American section.

"We were facing an ecological collapse," DellaSala says. The Northwest, he says, was "down to the last 15 or 20 percent of the old forests that were holding the whole system together." Without the plan, any older forests in the Northwest would by now be little more than a remnant.

The fight to save the Northern spotted owl — and the old-growth forests for which it became both a symbol and a surrogate — was perhaps the most significant environmental conflict of the late 20th century. It was repeatedly the headline enviro event in the Pacific Northwest, inspiring a logging truck protest in downtown Olympia, a rash of bumper stickers — "if it's hootin' I'm shootin'" — and an April 1993 conference that drew newly elected President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and five cabinet members to Portland.

The spotted owl nests and hunts in old growth forest. Because of the obvious implications for logging, the federal government tried to avoid listing the birds, but federal courts shot down government arguments and the owls were listed as threatened in 1990. A scientific committee headed by the Forest Service's senior wildlife biologist, Jack Ward Thomas, then recommended saving nearly 8 million acres of habitat. The next year, citing violation of the National Forest Management Act, U.S. District Judge William Dwyer blocked all timber sales in spotted owl habitat, which included nearly all Northwestern national forests.

In some people's eyes, we had reached Owlmageddon.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton pledged that if he were elected, he would hold a summit on the issue. After the Portland conference and the report from Thomas came out with a menu of alternatives designed to protect not only the owl but also the many other life forms with which it shared the woods, the administration sought political compromise. It chose a new option that would permit more logging than the scientists preferred.

"Option 9" became the Northwest Forest Plan. The next spring, the government issued its Record of Decision, and the plan went into effect.

Neither the industry nor the environmental community liked it — in fact, organizations on both sides sued — but the plan was good enough for Dwyer. At the end of 1994 — Owlmageddon hadn't occurred in the meantime — he lifted the injunction. Both industry and environmental groups said they were disappointed.

Neither the owl nor the forest products industry has done as well as some people had expected and many had hoped.

But, as a group of Northwestern economists observed in 1999, the sky didn't fall. Doomsday predictions of massive job losses proved false. Certain workers, mills, and communities felt pain. The Clinton administration's brave talk about retraining workers and reviving mill towns surprised virtually no one by proving to be largely hot air. Still, the Northwest economy didn't even hiccup.

And actually, says Andy Kerr, who attended the forest conference as a leader of the group now called Oregon Wild, "the industry has done fine." It has more capacity now than it did 20 years ago, albeit (just like other successful American manufacturing industries) fewer workers.

Nevertheless, industry and politicians kept trying to get at the nominally-protected trees. Under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, "salvage logging" of trees killed by fire or disease was used as a scam to let loggers into forests that would otherwise have been off-limits.

And a lot of old trees remained fair game. Although many people assumed otherwise, the Northwest Forest Plan allowed old-growth logging in the forest "matrix" that surrounds designated reserves.

Much of that matrix wound up in Oregon, says Oregon Wild's Steve Pedery, largely because Oregon's then-Sen. Mark Hatfield, a moderate Republican of wide influence and generally strong environmental credentials, wanted it there. "There has been a lot of old growth logged since 1994," Pedery says.

That logging got a further political boost after Clinton left office. The Bush administration, allegedly paying off campaign debts to forest products companies, pushed a "healthy forests" initiative to expand permitted logging. Memos that Earthjustice later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act made it clear that collusion between the Bush administration and the forest products industry wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination.

The Bush administration insisted that Clinton's pie-in-the-sky promise of delivering a billion board feet of timber a year from Northwestern federal forests — clearly stated but clearly unrealistic — was an iron-clad obligation on the government's part.

As a condition of settling a suit with an industry plaintiff — business-friendly settlements became a favorite tactic of Bush's team when industry friends challenged environmental regulation — the Bush administration conducted a status review of the Northern spotted owl. Environmental groups feared the status review would merely whitewash the owl's predicament. It didn't.

Instead, in 2004 the review team's report said that owl populations had dropped faster than anyone had anticipated. It pointed the finger at past habitat loss on federal land, and ongoing loss of habitat outside the area covered by the Northwest Forest Plan. It also pointed to the invasion of non-native barred owls, which have been pushing spotted owls out of their habitat.

Old growth in the north Cascades Ryan Ledgerwood

As a condition of settling another suit, the Bush administration decided to do an owl recovery plan. It assembled a committee, then told the committee that it had better make the barred owl the No. 1 threat. The committee was told it should keep any discussion of habitat loss to a single page. DellaSala, who sat on the committee, calls that approach "a shell game: Keep your eye on the barred owl." The resulting plan was trashed by scientific reviewers. A successor fared almost as badly.

The legal fighting carried beyond the Bush presidency. Facing suits by both environmentalists and the forest products industry over the indefensible Bush owl plan and critical habitat designation, the Obama administration asked the court to let it go back to the drawing board. In its message to the court, the administration pointed to a scandal over an Interior Department deputy assistant secretary's manipulations of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the northern spotted owl. In 2011, the Obama administration came out with a recovery plan of its own.

It didn't play down the role of the barred owl, but it didn't ignore the fact that spotted owls still need habitat. Indeed, Kerr points out that the barred owl invasion makes the preservation of habitat more important than ever. "Science suggests," he says, "that in intact old growth forests, the spotted owl has a competitive advantage."

"They are currently moving the importance of protecting habitat back to the top of the list," Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles said when the Obama recovery plan became public. "That's pretty big."

Part 2: Despite hopes, environmentalists find themselves fighting familiar issues in a Democratic administration. 

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