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Looking Back: Northwest Forest Plan Introduced New Conservation Paradigm

Cascadia Wildlands

It’s been more than twenty years since the Northwest Forest Plan set out to ease tensions in the “Timber Wars” of Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

The plan signaled a historic shift in how public lands were managed – focusing efforts on maintaining biodiversity instead of keeping timber production high.

Now the Forest Plan is up for revision, a process Northwesterners will be hearing about often in the coming years. But how did we get here?

Portland, Oregon. April. 1993.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the President and Vice President of the United States.”

These words marked the beginning of President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Summit, and the start of a detente between loggers and conservationists.

The timber industry had been king for decades, cutting old growth forests at high rates with little resistance. But then in the 1980s, the environmental movement picked up steam.

Julie Norman was president of the Southern Oregon conservation group Headwaters.

Julie Norman: “Neighbors were teaming up and forming these little grassroots groups, like ours.”

By the time the northern spotted owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, environmentalists were disrupting logging operations on the ground and gaining traction in the courts. A year later, a federal judge banned all timber sales until the protection of the spotted owl’s old-growth habitat could be ensured.

And just like that, logging in the Northwest’s public forests came to a near standstill.

That’s when, President Clinton announced the Northwest Forest Summit in Portland. Again Julie Norman.

Julie Norman: “Clinton was like the grand facilitator. I think he drew everyone out in a very congenial way as if he was trying to figure this whole thing out.”

Clinton brought Norman to the table, along with timber representatives, scientists, fishermen, Native Americans, dockworkers and local officials.

Julie Norman: “I guess I just remember very being out of my element, you know what I mean? I mean it was the President.”

Before a national audience on C-SPAN, Norman made the case to stop logging old growth forests. The others had their time as well.

Walter Minnick “Essentially what we need the government to do is get out of the way, let the market system work. Get some certainty in the West side timber supply.”

Vic Cher: “They have consistently allowed over-cutting of those lands. And they have misled workers in timber-dependent communities into believing that that way of life can continue, and it can’t.”

Dave Schmidt: “Now where do we go from here? Wherever it is, it needs to be done very quickly.”

Charles Meslow: “ What most scientists are advocating is an ecosystem approach to the management of all old forest resources.”

That was Walter Minnick of Veneer Firm, Vic Cher of EarthJustice, Linn County Commissioner Dave Schmidt and Charles Meslow of the US Forest Service.

After a long day of testimony, Clinton delivered his marching orders.

Bill Clinton: “I intend to direct the Cabinet and the entire Administration to begin work immediately to craft a balanced, a comprehensive, a long term policy.”

Less than a year later, the Northwest Forest Plan emerged. It set the rules for 24 million acres of public lands in the Pacific Northwest, and promised to protect the forest environment while producing a predictable and sustainable level of timber sales.

On the logging front, it did not deliver. Bob Ragon is with Douglas Timber Operators.

Bob Ragon: “The plan has never met those expectations. It’s been dramatically less than that because of all the legal challenges that have been filed by the environmental groups.”

Actual logging levels have averaged closer to half the promised amount.
But Julie Norman says for old growth conservation, the Northwest Forest Plan has been largely successful.

The plan has stood up in the courts, even as its poster-bird, the spotted owl, continues to decline.

Julie Norman: “We might not have been happy with every aspect of it, but it was such a huge improvement over the past.”

As the Forest Service begins the process of updating the Northwest Forest Plan this year, Ragon sees opportunity to increase logging levels. Conservation groups are gearing up to keep protections in place.

If the trends of the past hold, any gain for the timber industry will be seen as a loss for conservationists.

Copyright 2015 Earthfix

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