Bush Change to NW Forest Plan Would Ease Logging

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, November 26, 2002 (ENS) - The Bush administration has proposed changing a salmon protection program in order to ease environmental restrictions for the sale of timber from public forests in the Pacific Northwest.

The administration's proposal to revise the Aquatic Conservation Strategy of the Northwest Forest Plan was published in the Federal Register Monday. It will allow federal land managers to move forward with timber sales without having to consider the environmental impact to salmon populations, something that is currently required.


Logs in salmon stream (Photo courtesy State of Washington)
The proposed action would amend land and resource management plans for National Forests and Bureau of Land Management Districts within the range of the northern spotted owl in western Oregon and Washington, and northwestern California.

The revision would expedite logging and allow the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to meet its projected timber sales, according to the administration.

Commercial fishing groups, as well as environmentalists, quickly criticized the proposed revisions, calling them a gift to the timber industry at the expense of endangered salmon and old growth forests.

"This plan is motivated by the desire to give federal timber and public resources to the timber industry," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association (PCFF).

"The direct impact of this proposal is more old growth logging, and this is also its intent," added Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE). "Along with that, there will be less protection for wildlife, streams and salmon. That is also the intent."

“The goal of the effort is to clarify wording within the aquatic conservation strategy to better reflect the intent of the 1994 plan,” maintains Phil Mattson, assistant director of strategic planning for the Forest Service.

“Our job, through the process of a supplemental environmental impact statement, is to correct the inconsistencies in language within the original plan, which have resulted in confusion and the delay of 24 biological opinions and more than 100 timber sale and restoration projects,” Mattson said.

The Northwest Forest Plan was created in 1994 during the Clinton administration to insure that logging operations on some 24 million acres of federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California did not adversely effect the rivers, streams and wildlife.

The plan was written in the wake of lawsuits over federal mismanagement of forests and to protect the northern spotted owl. The owl lives with the range of the lands managed under the Northwest Forest plan, some of which is considered old growth forest.


Northern spotted owl and nestlings on their nest in an old-growth snag. (Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management)
Since the 1970s the northern spotted owl has received much scientific attention, beginning with comprehensive studies of its natural history by Dr. Eric Forsman of the U.S. Forest Service, who discovered the close association between spotted owls and old-growth forests. "This discovery raised concerns because the majority of remaining old-growth owl habitat is on public land available for harvest," Forsman wrote.

In 1990 the northern spotted owl was federally listed as threatened.

Since the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted in 1994, numerous populations of salmon inhabiting streams on national forest lands have been listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

In the Columbia River Basin alone, the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed 12 distinct populations of salmon and steelhead as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Given this evidence, Spain said, now is hardly the time to roll back protections for the fish.

The Aquatic Conservation Strategy was created as a measure to protect salmon populations, and it calls on federal agencies to maintain and restore watersheds as they implement programs, including timber sales, on federal lands.

Under the current framework, federal officials must examine the impact of how each individual project might impact protected fish, and each project must meet the regional plan's standard for waterways. This has been reaffirmed by recent court decisions that found the federal government was not complying with this requirement.

The Bush administration, however, believes the view endorsed by the courts is impractical and that it was not the intent of the plan as it was originally written under the Clinton administration.

The Bush administration's proposal for this revision was published in a notice in the Federal Register by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The U.S. Forest Service, which falls under the USDA, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which operates under the Interior Department, are jointly preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement designed to restore what the USDA calls the "original intent" of the Northwest Forest Plan and the Aquatic Conservation Strategy .

According to the notice, the Bush administration seeks to revise the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) in light of recent litigation that endorsed the site-specific approach.

"This interpretation is not what was intended by the agencies [the Forest Service and BLM], and makes it nearly impossible to implement any management actions that could have any effect on riparian areas," the USDA wrote in its notice.

The Bush plan would let federal officials overlook short term impacts to salmon habitats when approving timber sales. This will not harm the environment, the administration argues, because federal officials will take into account the impact of projects on the regional watershed.

"The ACS was designed to operate over multiple spatial scales, with a focus on the broader scales (watershed and landscape)," according to the USDA's notice.

On behalf of the fishermen's assocation, Spain argued that the administration aims to "rubber stamp individual operations with the hope that it will all come out okay."

Critics says the administration is being disingenuous when it calls its revision a return to the "original intent" of the Northwest Forest Plan.

The plan never mandated logging, Stahl pointed out, rather it specifically stated that up to 1.1 billion board feet could be logged.

The spokesperson for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry organization, was unavailable for comment today. The group, however, is on record as saying that these changes will not leave salmon and water quality unprotected, and that this move simply puts the plan in line with what the Clinton administration envisioned.


Sandy River, Oregon (Photo courtesy Metro Portland)
The proposal, in Spain's view, is an end-run around the court decisions that have interpreted the Northwest Forest Plan as requiring the assessment of the site-specific impacts as well as the overall regional impact of activities on national forests.

"The courts went against them," Spain said, "so now they are trying to turn back the clock so the courts don't matter."

"You don't restore a plan by eliminating wholesale provisions to it," said Stahl of the FSEEE. "In one way, the Bush administration is being quite candid. It has chosen logging over fish."

There seems little doubt that revisions to weaken the Aquatic Conservation Strategy will impact salmon. One-third of all salmon habitats are within federal lands and these areas contain many important spawning areas.

"Oregon, California and Washington are all making extraordinary efforts to save salmon on private and state lands," Spain said. "Loosening federal protection will make their efforts even more difficult and this eliminates protection for salmon in most public federal lands."

Despite the Bush administration's statements that its revisions provide a balance between logging and the environment, critics contend that the United States should be looking to end logging in old growth forests, rather than making it easier.

"Now is the time to redouble our efforts to protect salmon and old growth forests, not start unraveling the small progress that we have made," said Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "The Bush administration's approach will lead to conflict and controversy, when there is clearly another way."

"People here in the Northwest have invested years in making progress on forest and salmon protection," said Heiken. "The Bush administration is upsetting delicate steps towards consensus that will probably send us back to the forest wars of the 1990s."

Adoption of the proposed action would affect National Forest System lands and public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management within the range of the northern spotted owl, generally in western Oregon and Washington, and in northwestern California.

The USDA's notice in the Federal Register Monday indicated while there are no plans for public meetings on the revisions, public comments will be accepted.

It is expected that the final revisions will be filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by July 2003, with a final decision planned for August 2003.

Send written comments concerning this proposal to: Comments, SEIS for Aquatic Conservation Strategy, P.O. Box 2965, Portland, Oregon 97208. Copies of the Record of Decision and Attachment A to the Record of Decision are online at: http://www.reo.gov/library/reports/newsandga.pdf.

Hard copies can be obtained from the Office of Strategic Planning; P.O. Box 3623, Portland, Oregon 97208.