NW Forest Plan: Warfare rages out of the spotlight

"Most people think the Northwest forest war is over," says Andy Kerr, who attended Bill Clinton's 1993 Portland forest conference as a leader of the group that is now Oregon Wild, "but it isn't." A lot of the main action in that war has always taken place in Oregon.

As a last-minute gift to the forest products industry, the Bush administration came out with the Western Oregon Plan Revision (abbreviated as WOPR and pronounced "whopper"), which would have opened a lot of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in southern Oregon to increased logging. The O&C Act of 1937, which brought 2.5 million acres originally granted to the Oregon and California Railroad back into federal ownership, sends revenue from logging on those O&C lands to southern Oregon counties. But federal courts have long since ruled that Congress' Depression-era concern for the economies of those counties doesn't trump federal environmental law.

One court ruled in favor of WOPR. Another ruled against it. The Obama administration hasn't tried to follow up. The BLM continues to plan, as it pretty well has to. "They're recycling a lot of the data that underpinned the WOPR," Oregon Wild's conservation director Steve Pedery says, "but they're trying to do something legal this time."

Management of the O and C lands could have been settled by the forest plan, says Pedery, but Oregon's then-Sen. Mark Hatfield didn't want that to happen. Now, 20 years on, no one denies that Oregon's southern coastal counties are economically depressed. However, that's nothing new. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles acknowledges that "the economic problems of [Oregon's] coastal logging communities are real [but] far predate the logging restrainst that have followed the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl."

Some communities in those counties are far more dependent on timber income than just about anywhere in Washington, says Conservation Northwest's science and conservation director, David Werntz. He suggests that on the O and C lands, we're "basically seeing a battle over the last remaining vestiges of a natural resource economy."

And even in depressed coastal counties, the benefits of increased logging may not exceed the costs. Before the Forest Plan went into effect, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that 44 planned BLM sales there would jeopardize recovery of the Northern Spotted Owl. The BLM appealed to the "God Squad," the Cabinet-level committee that can decide whether or not the economic benefits of an action that violates the Endangered Species Act would outweigh the environmental costs. This was one of the very few times the God Squad has been called into action. It let only 13 of the sales go forward. It decided that costs outweighed benefits on the other 31.

At the edge of a clear cut in Oregon's Coast Range (2010) M.O. Stevens/Wikimedia Commons

Two influential Oregon Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, have introduced bills designed to pump more timber money into those counties and reshape the management of the O&C lands. DeFazio's bill has already passed the House. "Oregon’s rural communities cannot afford another 20 years of gridlock in our federal forests," DeFazio proclaims on his website. "Without a new path forward, mills will continue to disappear, forest jobs will be outsourced, counties will be pushed off the budgetary cliff, forest health will continue to decline, and irreplaceable old growth will be one court decision away from liquidation." Then, he explains, "After years of hard work and negotiation, we crafted the bipartisan 'O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act' (OCTCJA) and passed our plan on a bipartisan basis."

Many conservation groups don't see it that way. In fact, some are alarmed. Earthjustice's Boyles suggests that the DeFazio bill is "a basic King Solomon solution: split the baby down the middle." One half would essentially be handed over to the forest products industry — the legislation would establish a trust that would fund county governments and would in turn be funded by logging on nearly half the O and C land in south Oregon — the other reserved as natural habitat.

The DeFazio bill would basically privatize a million acres for use by the loggers, says Noah Matson, vice president for landscape conservation and Climate Adaptation at Defenders of Wildlife. If the legislation is passed, he says, it would "open up the floodgates for Tea Partiers and others" who would like to see public land in private hands. Already, he notes, the Utah legislature has passed legislation demanding that the federal government turn land over to the state.

DeFazio, in turn, has criticized opponents as "radical groups" that want to stop all logging. DeFazio is in an awkward position, representing both the liberal environmentalists of Eugene and the depressed milltowns of the southern coast. Staff from his House Natural Resources Committee didn't respond to my request for an interview.

DeFazio says on his website that under his bill, 55 percent of the 2.8 million acres would be managed for conservation purposes. However, environmental critics argue that changing management of the O and C lands would throw the whole Forest Plan out of balance; the plan assumes habitat on those lands would be available to owls.

At best, enviros say, the Wyden bill is better but still bad. Wyden's office presumably says something different, but it didn't respond to an  interview request, either. The primary concern is the Endangered Species Act's treatment under Wyden's bill, which, Matson says, knowingly or unknowingly, overrides several aspects of the ESA. Wyden's measure, he says, "seems to create almost a parallel universe." Wyden (shown at left) is trying to reduce the chance of litigation, but the bill in its current form creates new structures that would have to be decided in the courts, he says.

"If those bills were coming from Republicans, they'd be dismissed as wacko, anti-environment," Kerr says. Although the economy has moved on, he says, "Timber still makes politicians crazy in Oregon."

The issue has attracted little attention beyond Oregon's borders. One reason, Kerr suggests, is that the O and C lands don't show up on maps; they're spread over Bureau of Land Management-managed property and seven different national forests. Within Oregon, of course, they're front and center.

Pedery says his group has tried to enlist the support of Washington's Sen. Patty Murray and other outside politicians, but everyone treats it as a local issue, and defers to Wyden. Inside Oregon, he says, "This thing is sucking all the oxygen out of the room." If you're not talking about the O and C bills — or coal trains — it's hard to get anyone's attention.

Among other things, the Wyden bill would allow logging of trees up to 120 years old. One goal of the Northwest Forest Plan was to grow more old growth over time. Pederay say that if the bill passes, Congress is essentially giving up on the goal of regrowing old growth forest. All in all, he believes this is "the last battle of the old growth wars."

Kerr sees it much the same way. But he also warns, "If the Northwest Forest Plan unravels in Oregon, it's going to unravel in Washington." The Oregon fight isn't a local issue. "It's about the whole range of the spotted owl," he says.

Throughout the region, there has been a lot less cutting of old trees than the plan permits, and there will probably be a lot less in the future. That is largely due to social pressure and emerging science, explains Conservation Northwest's science and conservation director Dave Werntz. Dominick DellaSala, president of the Ashland-based, Geos Institute, says that federal agencies have lost their "social license" to cut old trees. As a result, he says, federal operations are probably close to Option 1, the more restrictive forest plan the scientists favored 20 years ago.

Besides, as access to old growth has been limited or eliminated, most old-growth mills have either shut down or retooled to cut smaller logs. Outside southwestern Oregon, there aren't many places to saw an old-growth log nowadays. And the science has evolved since 1994; it turns out that old trees and old-growth structure are even more important to forest health than people had realized. It's a good thing that scientific and political change has taken place: "It's the old forest that is still in the matrix [within which the forest plan allows logging] that is helping preserve the spotted owl," Werntz says.

It is also the old ponderosa pine in drier, eastside forests where fire poses a significant risk, that best withstand wildfires. Pedery says he has a chunk of bark from a 350-year-old pine that fell in the Klamath basin, and it's 10 inches thick. It reminds him of just why those old trees are less likely to burn. East of the mountains, saving the big, old trees becomes crucial. Current strategies call for retaining the patches of old forest, even creating fire breaks around them by cutting the thick stands of younger trees that decades of fire suppression have given a chance to develop.

Across the region, the push for salvage logging continues, Pedery says, but agencies now realize that both in terms of public relations improving forest conditions, it's better to concentrate on thinning green trees, not letting loggers into burned areas. There, he says, "All the [commercial] value is in the big trees, and that's what you want to leave behind."

There are so many of those crowded, younger trees, that in many areas, one can thin the forests to reduce fire danger and still make a profit. Werntz explains that this will work only the first time around — i.e., now — but not when thinning must be done again, decades hence. "Where you're going to have more problems," he says, "is the next time through."

While the region's federal forests are managed under the Northwest Forest Plan, each individual national forest has its own specific management plan. All of those individual plants are due for updating.

First on the schedule is the plan for central Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Bill Gaines, a wildlife biologist on the forest plan revision team, says that this represents "the next evolution of the Northwest Forest Plan." The plan of 20 years ago did not foresee the fact that up to 40 percent of spotted owl nest sites in drier eastside forests would wind up in the general planning rather than reserves. And, the 20-year-old plan didn't anticipate the effects of fire and barred owl invasion — or the likely effects of climate change — on the owls' habitat and distribution. Nor could it have anticipated the fact that after the Obama recovery plan went into effect, the federal government "designated a lot of critical habitat ouside the late successional reserve network."

A family of spotted owls U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region/Flickr

The 2011 proposal for a plan revision explains that a "shift in focus from commodity production to ecosystem restoration and forest health is being proposed." A restoration plan proposal, the plan states, "emphasizes a restoration paradigm where ecological outcomes for multiple resources drive the development and implementation of projects. This is different from the existing paradigm in which timber production targets often drive forest projects, while the needs of other resources are often overlooked."

However, Werntz says, "There's been a big push to remove hard standards and replace them with aspirational goals." And DellaSala complains, "Let's get the [the revision's larger forest usage] matrix up to where the reserves are, and then talk about taking out the reserves."

Gaines agrees that the lack of reserves makes people nervous, taking away the assurance of lines on a map. However, he says, to a considerable degree, "We haven't been able to pay much attention to those lines anway, They got blurred. And pretty quickly."

The planning document says that massive fires in dry forests and barred owl invasions of wet forest reserves make it hard to determine which parts of the landscape will be critical for spotted owl recovery. DellaSala says, nevertheless, that people "continue to chip away at the overall plan." He suggests that people "continue to chip away at the overall plan."

Historically, Gaines says, in moister parts of the landscape — along rivers, for example — at least half of the forest might have provided spotted owl habitat, but in drier sections, the owls could have used no more than 25 percent. Now, barred owls have been forcing spotted owls from those moister sites, which form the cores of the reserves, into drier areas, many of them outside the reserves. He describes one classic reserve around a river bottom in which he and other biologists had followed 22 spotted owl nesting sites for years in the 1990s. A more recent researcher found just two spotted owl sites there. Instead of the old spotted owl concentration, "he found it jam-packed full of barred owl sites." The bottom line is that the barred owl invasion is forcing spotted owls to rely increasingly on the forests that are most vulnerable to disruption by fire and bugs. Stay tuned. 

Stay tuned, also, for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) experiment in shotgunning barred owls. After years of talk, the feds decided last year to whack barred owls in a number of study areas over four years and see how spotted owls respond. The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest's Cle Elum Ranger District is one of four places in which barred owls are eventually supposed to be shot.

The FWS has based its planning in part on barred owl "removal" already done in British Columbia and on private land in northern California. Biologists who conducted and assessed the California efforts reported that they took out 73 barred owls over four years at a cost of no more than $100 to $150 per hit. They used 12- or 20-gauge shotguns, lead-free shot, illuminated sights. The FWS started its own experiment last fall on the Hoopa Indian reservation in northern California. It should have preliminary results this spring, says the FWS's Elizabeth Materna. The FWS had planned to start work on Oregon sites this year, Materna says, but it won't. Doesn't the agency have a sense of urgency about the project? "Yes," she says, "but unfortunately with the government shutdown, our appropriations were delayed." Scientists couldn't do preliminary field work in time, so the project is running a year behind schedule.

The prospect of shooting one owl in order to save another makes a lot of people uneasy. DellaSala says it makes him uneasy, too, but there are precedents: In Michigan, where he once worked, people got rid of cowbirds to save the Jack Pine Warbler. And in the Aleutians, people got rid of arctic foxes on islands to which they weren't native in order to save the Aleutian Canada Goose.

After 20 years of the Northwest Forest Plan, what does the scorecard look like? Spotted owls look more precariously on the brink than ever. DellaSalla says, "The species is likely circling the drain." No one thinks we can ice all the barred owls. So Northern spotted owls still face competition, habitat loss outside the national forests, and increasing threats of habitat burning up in drier areas east of the Cascades.

"Politically, the Northwest Forest Plan was a huge public policy leap forward," Kerr says. However, the spotted owl's "situation was so bad that the Northwest Forest Plan wasn't enough."

Marbled murrelets, which the plan was also designed to protect, have not recovered well, either. Data suggest that between 2000 and 2010, their population declined by 30 percent. More inclusive data, extending the period to 2012, suggest maybe it didn't. Clearly, murrelets have fared badly along the Washington coast. Surprisingly, they may not have fared badly around Puget Sound. The actual structure of the plan was based on watersheds vital to wild salmon. A lot of streams are in better shape than they were 20 years ago. A lot of the big trees have been saved, and a lot more may get a chance to grow big.

A marbeled murrelet fishes for dinner. Gus Van Vliet, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons  

Virtually all mills that once cut old growth have either shut down or retooled to cut smaller logs. Only in southwestern Oregon is access to big trees on public land still a big deal.

By reducing logging, the plan has transformed the Northwest's national forests from a carbon source to a carbon sink, DellaSala says. That may not have seemed like a big deal initially, but today, with rising consciousness of global climate change, it does. Pedery says he's always amused by all the great press Oregon gets nationally for its efforts to combat climate change. If you look at its logging practices, he says, "We're the Brazil of North America."

Nevertheless, DellaSala says, "The problem with the Northwest Forest Plan, as I see it, was that it was 20 years too late." There would have been a lot more old trees to save in the 1970s. Nineteen-ninety-four was pretty well the last minute.

And yet, it's way too early to fairly assess the plan. "A lot of people are impatient," DellaSala says. But they shouldn't be: "This is really a 100-year plan." The idea was always to let late-successional reserves become old growth. That takes time. As DellaSala points out, "We're only 20 percent of the way there."

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