Northwest Forest Plan could be on the verge of crumbling


The Northwest Forest Plan is the troubled legacy that haunts both the timber industry and environmental groups. Neither side was happy with the plan when it was approved 21 years ago, and neither side has a clean sheet two decades later.Environmentalists defend the plan, but even they have to admit that the plan did nothing to save the spotted owl, which is doing worse than ever before. The environmental groups also have a hard time defending the abject poverty that the Forest Plan created in rural communities across the West. The timber industry, meanwhile, was hit hard by the massive reduction in the federal timber harvest caused by the plan, which never produced even its promised timber yield, let alone anything resembling the harvest levels before the plan went into effect.

In the last couple years, the pendulum — however slowly — seems to be swinging back the other direction. Republicans now control both houses of Congress, and even some Democrats are recognizing that the federal timber harvest is woefully inadequate to support our rural counties. Several bills have advanced in Congress to create more active management of federal forests, though none have yet to be signed into law.

And now the Northwest Forest Plan itself, long in the tooth after 20 years, may be in its death throes.

Environmental writer Paul Koberstein writes in the Portland Tribune this month that the U.S. Forest Service (controlled by a Democratic president) is planning to revise the Northwest Forest Plan or even ditch it altogether.

Koberstein’s story has a strong bias toward environmental groups, but the point is clear: the Northwest Forest Plan’s days are numbered.

At separate private briefings in Portland last November, the U.S. Forest Service revealed to environmental groups and a timber trade group that it intends to revise the (Northwest Forest Plan), created a generation ago to lift a court injunction and end the Northwest timber wars….

The Forest Service will hold public “listening sessions” starting in late March to hear what people think should replace the (President Clinton-led) plan, says Jim Peña, the agency’s regional forester for the Northwest.

The Clinton plan was developed by scientists tasked with creating a science-based plan that was sound enough to hold up in court, not focus groups in search of a politically palatable compromise.

But there may be no way to escape political considerations this time around. The courts have tended to get more conservative in their rulings, and a few days after the briefings, Republicans claimed control of both chambers of Congress…

The Clinton plan emphasized forest and stream protections ahead of logging. In the new plan, it remains to be seen how much emphasis on environmental protection will remain, or whether logging will be given an equal footing, or better, as some politicians and timber executives seek.

For the timber industry, rethinking the Forest Plan makes sense.

Timber industry leaders delivered a different message. “We want a plan that will work. It hasn’t worked for a variety of reasons,” says Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council, an industry group based in Portland.

The Northwest Forest Plan was designed to deliver 1.2 billion board feet of timber to the industry each year, but has produced only about half that amount, Partin says. He expects the federal government will find it can do both jobs of protecting all wildlife and delivering the timber.

The Daily Astorian (Ore.), writing this week in reaction to Koberstein’s story, comes across as no friend to the timber industry, but even the Astorian agrees that the plan needs to be revised because of the broken promises that the U.S. government made to rural communities two decades ago.

There is growing political and economic pressure to ensure the forest plan delivers something closer to the 1.2 billion board feet of timber per year once promised. Harvests are actually around half that total. This broken commitment to industry and rural communities places the entire current regulatory regime at risk.

In an American West that is already experiencing species migration and droughts that many see as precursors to full-fledged climate change, it’s vital we continue to protect large forests. But doing so will require that environmental interests negotiate in good faith to make certain rural economies are returned to something better approximating long-term viability