Federal timber changes could include spotted owl uplisting


The U.S. Forest Service is planning to essentially throw out the Northwest Forest Plan after 21 years. As we noted earlier this year, the tide seems to be turning (ever so slowly) among even some Democrats that the federal timber harvest is woefully inadequate to support rural communities. Once the changes are complete, the Northwest Forest Plan, the source of so much misery in timber towns, will cease to exist, at least in its current form.

In November 2014, the Forest Service briefed representatives of industry, local government and conservation on its intent to revise the (Northwest Forest Plan), as required by the National Forest Management Act. Jim Peña, the Northwest regional forest supervisor, said the Northwest Forest Plan will no longer exist as an umbrella document that applies to all forests equally. Instead, its principles — but not necessarily its specific strategies — will be embedded into the planning documents of each of the 19 forest units.

…Under the new plans, the timber industry expects to gain access to more timber than it has since the Northwest Forest Plan first took effect, said Ann Forest Burns, a vice-president of the Portland-based industry group, the American Forest Resource Council. She added that the industry’s allocation has been half or less of the 1.1 billion annual board feet promised in the original plan. If the new forest plans fails to provide enough timber, she said, “we will ask Congress to change the law.” That could include two 1970s-era mandates, the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Of course, there are still many unanswered questions about how the new forest plans will emerge. And environmental groups no doubt will also be lobbying to limit timber harvests even more than they are now. Already the timber industry and rural communities had to speak up in order to get the Forest Service to hold local meetings about the proposed plan revisions.

The Forest Service last month held three “listening sessions,” in Portland, Seattle and Redding, Calif. Rural leaders in Oregon and Washington complained that they could not make the sessions because they were in large cities far from loggers and rural towns. Not surprisingly, the listening session in Portland was filled with environmentalists, with few timber voices able to attend.

This week, the Forest Service took note and announced that it would hold listening sessions in all 19 national forests and seven Bureau of Land Management units affected by the Northwest Forest Plan. The first of those sessions was scheduled for April 27 in Corvallis, Ore.

The Albany Democrat-Herald (just north of Corvallis) said the Forest Service should go even more local.

While we’re gratified that the Forest Service plans to expand its listening sessions to areas closer to home than Portland or Seattle or Redding, we still think the agency should hold one of these sessions in east Linn County, an area that has been devastated economically by the cutbacks in logging on national forests. Forest officials likely will hear a somewhat different story in, say, Sweet Home, than they’ll hear in Corvallis. And voices in Sweet Home have just as much right to be heard.

These sessions are part of what is certain to be a drawn-out process to revise the Northwest Forest Plan, which has guided management decisions by the Forest Service and the BLM in this area since 1994. Designed to protect the northern spotted owl and other threatened species that rely on old growth forests, the plan sharply reduced logging on federal lands throughout the region — cutbacks that gutted the economies of timber towns.

Some of those timber towns have figured out ways to bounce back economically: Lebanon, (Ore.) comes to mind. Others still are struggling.

Sweet Home is a struggling timber town, about 30 miles from Corvallis, that was profiled last fall in the New York Times.

Another potentially large part of the federal government’s forest plans was just announced this week: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to change the listing of the spotted owl from threatened to endangered. While rural communities could stand to gain from the Northwest Forest Plan changes proposed by the Forest Service, an “uplisting” of the spotted owl could cloud some of those gains.  This map show the extent of habitat protected by regulations for owl conservation, but little is being done to address the real threat of barred owl invasion.

What’s especially frustrating is that the owl’s decline in recent years has nothing to do with timber, and yet the timber industry could be damaged by the new listing. The spotted owl is in decline because of the invasion of a larger, more aggressive species, the barred owl. The Fish and Wildlife Service has long acknowledged this, and is even undergoing a pilot project to kill the barred owl in select forests in an attempt to save spotted owls.

Carol Johnson, the head of a timber political action group on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, told the Peninsula Daily News this week that the industry is still in wait-and-see mode. Johnson’s group, the North Olympic Timber Action Committee, was formed in 1989 in “direct response to citizen concerns about the potential loss of harvestable timber land due to the spotted’s owl listing.”

“We just always expect the worst and hope for the best.”

…“Right now, there are so many issues going on relative to regulations,” she said.

“I don’t know what changing the listing from threatened to endangered is going to actually mean to our industry.”

Cindy Mitchell, senior director of public affairs for the Washington Forest Protection Association, said the Fish and Wildife Service has to fully recognize the science behind the spotted owl’s decline, such as the incursion of the barred owl, if any progress is going to be made.

“If there can be calm, scientific approaches to the spotted owl and what is actually happening, then I think it could be a rational (dialogue). But that’s more of a hope more than anything,” she said.