The Unmaking of the Northwest Forest Plan, Part 1: Out with Enforceable Substance and in with Performative Process
This is the first installment of a two-part series on the Forest Service seeking to amend the Northwest Forest Plan. Part 1 examines the motivation of Forest Service bureaucrats to release themselves from the shackles of the plan, all the while playing up happy talk about ecosystems and sustainability and downplaying the sad truth of more roading and logging. Part 2 will examine how to strengthen the Northwest Forest Plan for the benefit of this and future generations.
Figure 1. An old-growth Douglas-fir forest stand now safely in a late-successional reserve under the Northwest Forest Plan. Such reserves could become unsafe for mature and old-growth forests. Source: lost to history (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness, Timber Press, 2004).
Top Line: The world’s largest ecosystem management plan is under existential threat.
The legendary Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was imposed by the president of the United States on a very reluctant Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management bureaucracy. Though the official record of decision for the plan was signed by high-level officers in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, President Bill Clinton was directly involved to the point that he was suggesting edits to the final language. For a quarter century, the Forest Service bureaucracy has chafed under a plan that it never wanted and would never have created on its own.
This bureaucracy now seeks to “amend” the plan more to its liking by trying to make it sound even better but actually do less. The USDA announced in July that it had convened a federal advisory committee “to provide advice and recommendations” (pronounced “to give political cover”) on amending the NWFP in the name of “modernizing landscape management.”
Figure 2. Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia). Industrial foresters considered the tree worthless slash because it didn’t make good lumber. Then scientists discovered that the yew’s bark contains the natural compound paclitaxel, useful for treating a variety of cancers.
The Northwest Forest Plan
The Northwest Forest Plan isn’t an act of Congress; it was an action by a president determined to end rampantly illegal and immoral logging of (most) old-growth forests within the range of the northern spotted owl in northwestern California, western Oregon, and western Washington.
A Very Brief History
By the late 1980s, the logging orgy on the federal forests that accelerated after World War II had reached its peak. While neither the supply of nor the demand for old-growth logs was exhausted, public tolerance of clear-cutting virgin old-growth forest on federal lands in Oregon (not to mention California and Washington) was rapidly waning, as three square miles per week of old-growth forest in Oregon alone was being clear-cut. Conservationists brought some highly successful lawsuits that resulted in several judges finding such logging to be in violation of the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other federal statutes.
As a result, the sale of old-growth timber (which was most timber sales) ground to a halt in 1989. The Oregon and Washington (not so much California) congressional delegations generally freaked out, fearing losing office if they didn’t continue to deliver big timber to Big Timber. Timber-addicted counties saw sharp drop-offs in the revenues they received from liquidating old-growth forests on federal public lands. However, the politics of the region was changing, with more citizens/voters wanting to preserve the last of the cathedral-like old-growth forests, which by the way were owned by all Americans everywhere. As these forests were quite magnificent and the clear-cuts that ended them were quite horrific, the political controversy that followed became a national (not just regional environmental) political issue.
Running for re-election, President George H. W. Bush promised to solve the Northwest “timber crisis” by sweeping away the federal laws that required the conservation of old-growth forests. His challenger, Bill Clinton, didn’t make any promises other than a promise to convene a summit in the region to address the issue. Clinton’s forest summit in Portland occurred shortly after he took office in January 1993. The upshot was an all-out scientific review and planning process that resulted in what became known as the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP).
The White House wanted a plan that provided both a whole lot of conservation and a whole lot of logging (typical politicians, though such is a zero-sum circumstance). The final plan was chosen because, on paper, the northern spotted owl was projected to not go extinct (but to get closer to extinction before things got better), and the plan would allow for the logging of more than one billion board feet per year (including mature and old-growth forests). The board feet number was so speculative/creative/hopeful/fanciful that the NWFP invented a term for it: potential sale quantity (PSQ).
Before (and since), the agencies had (have) used allowable sale quantity (ASQ). ASQ is the amount of timber that can be logged each year within a given set of constraints. PSQ is the amount of timber that might be logged if further analyses required by the NWFP at the timber sale level did not result in additional conservation requirements (which were effectively baked into the NWFP). Big Timber latched onto the highest possible number of board feet (assuming unlimited funding from Congress, and that future required surveys and analyses would not necessitate modifications to potential logging to comply with the NWFP standards) and tried to make it a floor rather than a ceiling.
The NWFP area encompasses 24 million acres of federal public lands within the range of the northern spotted owl. It includes all of the Klamath, Lassen, Mendocino, Shasta-Trinity, and Six Rivers National Forests in California (and part of the Modoc); all of the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie, Gifford Pinchot, and Olympic National Forests in Washington (and part of the Okanogan-Wenatchee); and all of the Siuslaw, Willamette, Umpqua, and Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forests in Oregon (plus parts of the Mount Hood, Deschutes, and Fremont-Winema). It also includes federal forestlands on Bureau of Land Management holdings within the range of the northern spotted owl (Map 1).
Map 1. The Northwest Forest Plan area with major land allocations (shades of green and purple good; yellow and brown bad). Source: Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Of the 24 million acres of primarily Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings, the lands were allocated to
• late-successional reserves (LSRs, 6.5 million acres),
• “managed” LSRs (0.1 million acres),
• riparian reserves (RRs), stream buffers within “matrix” areas (2.1 million acres),
• adaptive management areas (AMAs, 1.5 million acres), or
• “matrix” or free-fire logging areas (3.28 million acres).
Figure 5. The Endangered Species Act–protected marbled murrelet. The Northwest Forest Plan also addressed the conservation of this species, but it wasn’t enough. Source: Gary Braasch (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness, Timber Press, 2004).
Congressionally reserved areas (generally wilderness and wild and scenic rivers) already accounted for 7.25 million acres out of the timber base (not all of it forested); administratively “withdrawn” (generally to protect from logging damage) areas accounted for another 1.1 million acres.
In addition to land allocations, the other three legs of the NWFP were the designation of “key watersheds,” the requirement of “watershed analysis,” and the mandate to “survey and manage” for imperiled species before logging an area.
Figure 6. A Douglas-fir on the Umpqua National Forest that is perhaps a thousand years old (the only way to know for sure is to cut it down and count the rings). In the name of “forest health,” the Forest Service contemplated cutting down this tree to make more room for a younger (but still rather old) ponderosa pine nearby. The trees had co-existed for centuries and the younger didn’t need any help from the Forest Service. Source: Umpqua Watersheds (first appeared in Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness, Timber Press, 2004).
The Fundamental Bureaucratic Choice: Standards or Guidelines
It is the inherent nature of bureaucrats to resist limits on their administrative discretion. This is why one rarely finds a supervisor of a national forest or a regional forester overseeing a cluster of national forests to be in favor of significant amounts of additional wilderness areas or wild and scenic rivers. By their very purpose and form, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act limit agency discretion so as to protect the wildness in wilderness or the outstandingly remarkable values for which a wild and scenic river was designated. This means that bureaucrats cannot be roading, logging, and otherwise “managing” with reckless abandon. Of course, the bureaucrats see themselves as stewards, not home, er habitat, wreckers.
In the Reagan-era 1982 Forest Service planning regulations, agency field managers had to develop “standards and guidelines” (S&Gs) in national forest land and resource management plans that were, for the most part, mandatory. If the Forest Service failed to meet its S&Gs, a federal judge could make the agency comply. While S&Gs were not specifically defined in the regulation, S&Gs meant enough to allow conservationists in 1989 to obtain the sweeping injunctions against the logging of northern spotted owl habitat (aka old-growth forests).
In the Obama-era 2012 Forest Service planning regulations, the agency freed itself from S&Gs that were meaningful (enough so that the northern spotted owl injunctions would not be possible under the current planning regulations). The Forest Service specifically defined S&Gs, separating standards from guidelines:
A standard is a mandatory constraint on project and activity decisionmaking, established to help achieve or maintain the desired condition or conditions, to avoid or mitigate undesirable effects, or to meet applicable legal requirements.
A guideline is a constraint on project and activity decisionmaking that allows for departure from its terms, so long as the purpose of the guideline is met. (§ 219.15(d)(3)). Guidelines are established to help achieve or maintain a desired condition or conditions, to avoid or mitigate undesirable effects, or to meet applicable legal requirements. [emphasis added]
The 2012 planning regulations are full of happy talk about providing for a “diversity of plant and animal communities” and use words and phrases like ecological sustainability, best management practices, collaboration, connectivity, conserve, ecological integrity, ecosystem diversity, ecosystem services, focal species, and sustainable recreation. But all this happy talk is for naught if the agency’s plans are larded with guidelines rather than standards. It is very easy for a bureaucrat to state that a timber sale meets guidelines. Even if a guideline is not met, the regulation “allows for departure from its terms, so long as the purpose of the guideline is met” (emphasis added). In any case, guidelines can be blown off because they are not enforceable. A plan big on guidelines and depauperate of standards is a plan that cannot be held to account in a court of law.
If you are a Forest Service bureaucrat developing a new land and resource management plan—or amending the Northwest Forest Plan—of course you want to couch it in terms of guidelines rather than standards, because guidelines leave you with administrative discretion, while standards limit such discretion. The Forest Service has previously displayed its change-standards-to-guidelines predilection for amending other policies similarly imposed by the Clinton administration pertaining to the conservation and restoration of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests outside the range of the northern spotted owl and for Pacific salmon and other native fish stocks.
The Eastside Screens
The “eastside” forests are those national forest lands in Oregon and Washington that are not within the range of the northern spotted owl, which ranges east of the Cascade Crest but not by a lot. Logging on the east side was as out of control as in the spotted owl forests, so the Clinton administration imposed a new policy to conserve and restore old-growth forest trees and stands. These “eastside screens” were much more standards than guidelines. In 2021, the Forest Service changed the policies to be to its liking. In 2023, a federal judge found that action illegal. See my three-part Public Lands Blog post “Amending the Eastside Screens” (Parts 1, 2, and 3).
In the name of harmonization, the Forest Service in 2018 rolled out an “Aquatic and Riparian Conservation Strategy” (ARCS) intended to guide forest plan revisions for the national forests in Oregon, Washington, and parts of California. The ARCS would “synthesize and refine” three existing Clinton-era aquatic strategies:
• the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS, 1994)
• the Interim Strategies for Managing Anadromous Fish-Producing Watersheds in Eastern Oregon and Washington, Idaho, and portions of California (PACFISH, 1995)
• the Inland Native Fish Strategy (INFISH, 1995)
PACFISH covers the anadromous salmon watershed of the Pacific coast outside of the range of the northern spotted owl, while INFISH covers non–anadromous-fish-bearing streams.
What do ACS, PACFISH, and INFISH all have in common? Mostly standards, few guidelines. What does ARCS reek of? Guidelines.
The Forest Service amendment to the NWFP will likely sound much more oriented to the conservation of nature but in fact result in less conservation of nature. The July press release announcing the advisory committee reads, “The committee’s recommendations will incorporate traditional ecological knowledge, the latest science, and climate resilience into its recommendations for the 17 national forests in the Northwest Forest Plan area. The committee will also advise how these planning efforts can complement the Wildfire Crisis Strategy and help the Forest Service take more proactive measures to reduce wildfire risk, restore fire resilience, and enable long-term ecological integrity for people, communities and natural resources.” Happy talk.
The federal advisory committee contains some good choices, some not so good (see Table 1).
In Part 2 we suggest improvements that would strengthen the Northwest Forest Plan.