Updating the old-growth wars

Updating the old-growth wars – includes related information on conservation of spotted owl and forest management and legislation

Neil Sampson

The old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest are the center of a political controversy that may shape national forest and public land policy for decades. It is not a new situation. The animosities have been brewing for years, but it now begins to look like it is no longer possible to delay a solution.

The situation is a classic political confrontation, in which the will of the national electorate is pitted against local and regional interests. Old-growth forests have been reduced, it is generally agreed, to about 10 percent of their original range. Millions of acres have been set aside in the form of national and state parks, wilderness areas, and other forms of protected status. Outside those areas, however, lie robust old-growth ecosystems that are highly prized for high-quality, high-value timber as well as their ecological value. But those forests have been dwindling fast, with logging running at high levels for over 30 years (see graph on this page).

(Graph Omitted)

The predictable result has been intense public pressure to slow down or completely stop the further harvest of the remaining old-growth forest. Rancorous fights over national forest plans, annual political battles in Congress to cut back on Forest Service timber budgets or road-building funds, and legal battles to stop individual timber sales have become common.

A new element entered the fray as scientists recognized that the reduction in old-growth forest habitat was having a damaging effect on one of its inhabitants-the northern spotted owl. Perched atop the food chain, its livelihood dependent on lots of smaller critters who call old-growth forests home, the owl’s population declined as its habitat shrank. With little to go on in the way of scientific research, the Forest Service searched for a suitable way to protect the owl from further damage. Setting aside adequate old-growth forest seemed the only answer, but how much, where, and with what degree of protection were important questions upon which agreement was difficult.

Finally, in 1990, a long series of studies and reviews culminated in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the owl as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This creates an entirely new dimension to the problem, as the federal government is now forced to develop a recovery plan for the over, and, in the meantime, must do nothing to further threaten the owl’s existence. In other words, a federal timber sale in an old-growth forest can now be more easily challenged in court.

The challenge, then, is to find a way that timber can continue to be sold from the federal lands in the Pacific Northwest while meeting the requirements of an increasingly complex network of laws and restrictions. The stakes are high. Locally, the economic impact of an abrupt change in federal timber harvest ranges from significant to devastating. Some communities, where federal timber makes up almost the entire economic base, could simply dry up and die.

At the national level, the challenge is to our public commitment to long-term stewardship of the environment and, more particularly, to the federal lands. Is the country dedicated to conservation management and protection of the public forests? Will we continue to knowingly push plant and animal species toward extinction in the name of local economic needs? At the national level, the costs of protecting Pacific Northwest old-growth forests is modest. Richard Haynes, Forest Service researcher, estimates the national economic impact to be somewhere in the range of $10 per American household. The price of a new house could rise somewhere in the range of $200. The main reason for such modest national impacts, of course, is the ability of other regions, or imports from Canada, to fill the voids.

Locally, the costs are very different. For every billion board feet (bbf) of timber harvested, an estimated 9,000 jobs are created in direct woods work, milling, and production. Less agreement exists on how many indirect jobs result from each direct job. On the low side, some estimate the ratio to be 1:1, but others argue that there may be as many as four or five jobs created for each direct job. As a result, the estimates of job impact for each billion-board-foot change in harvest range from 18,000 to as high as 50,000.

Recent years have seen timber harvests from federal lands in Forest Service Region 6 running close to 5 bbf a year. (Region 6 is the Pacific Northwest and includes some national forests in Washington and Oregon that are not part of the old-growth Douglas-fir region, but most estimates of timber harvest are based on the regional totals.) For the 1980s, harvest levels averaged 3.7 bbf, with 1.9 in 1982 being the low point.

The high harvest levels of the past five years must come down, it is generally agreed. In developing the national forest plans for the region (before the status of the spotted owl was changed), the Forest Service settled on a sustainable harvest level of about 3.4 bbf. Early Forest Service estimates of the timber that could still be harvested while saving the Habitat Conservation Areas proposed by the Thomas Committee (see “The Thomas Committee” on page 18) ran around 2.6 bbf. More detailed studies now have convinced the Forest Service that the owl can be protected at a sustainable harvest level of around 3 bbf, provided that areas previously set aside for owl habitat, but now shown not to be needed, can be released for harvest. The environmental position, expressed by the Audubon Society, proposes a harvest level that would run “some thing less than 2 bbf.”

The major issues, then, seem to shape up as follows:

4 How much timber can the federal forest provide each year while still meeting the stewardship goal for the land and protecting the spotted owl from being driven to extinction? Congress and the Bush Administration seem to be settling on a figure for 1991 that looks like 3 bbf. (That also seems to be about the maximum that the Forest Service can prepare for sale and still meet all the federal statutes involved.)

* How will the long-term management of the oldgrowth forests be decided?

Will old-growth be “zoned out” of the timber base permanently (H.R. 4492), or will foresters be challenged to find ways to mix timber harvest and other values more carefully in the future?

* How will Congress, if it cuts timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest as significantly as is proposed, assist those communities that will be destroyed by the decision? This question is made even harder by a federal budget deficit that prevents much optimism about increased federal spending of any kind. In addition, there are sincere arguments about what kinds of federal assistance, if any, can be truly helpful.

Having one-industry economies dry up and blow away is never easy, but it’s pretty common. Farm communities in Kansas, industrial communities in Pennsylvania, and logging communities in Michigan have flourished, then busted as economic changes have occurred. If a local economy in Washington or Oregon declines because the international economy sours, or the local timber supply eventually runs down, it will be difficult on everyone involved. But if it declines because Congress decides that other national interests override the need to keep those localities supported with federal timber for another decade or two, then what does Congress owe those people, in the name of fairness?

Seeking a Management-Based Resolution

A number of conservation and professional organizations recently formed a working group to discuss ideas that may be useful in shaping a resolution to the old-growth/spotted-owl issue. The organizations include the:

* American Forestry Association

* International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

* Izaak Walton League of America

* National Association of Conservation Districts

* National Association of State Foresters

* Pinchot Institute for Conservation

* Society of American Foresters

* The Wildlife Society

* Wildlife Management Institute

The members of this working group recognize the multiple dimensions of the issue and the need to consider long-term questions affecting national forest management. With Congressional action imminent, however, the group felt that the first task should be to identify general principles that would be important in any legislation. The following statements have not been formally adopted by any of the participating groups and are presented in abbreviated form, These are the kinds of principles, however, that characterize the thinking of this group of middle-ground conservation organizations.

* The situation has reached the point where changes are needed in the way the federal forests in the Pacific Northwest are managed.

* Congress should avoid trying to manage the forests through legislation. The federal agencies should be required-then given-the flexibility to carry out sensitive, intelligent, professional resource management.

* Any old-growth legislation should be consistent with the Endangered Species Act and other laws governing federal land management. It should protect the Habitat Conservation Areas currently thought to be needed to protect the spotted owl. It should also take into account the habitat needs of other plant and animal species in old-growth forest communities.

* A primary management goal should be to maintain and restore biologically viable, well-distributed old-growth forest ecosystems.

* Legislative approaches should be based on the best scientific and resource-management information available and should provide the flexibility to incorporate new information.

* Legislation should include an aggressive research and demonstration program, including active forest-management plans and actions designed to maintain and, where needed, restore old-growth ecosystem characteristics.

* Congress should provide appropriate economic transition assistance to communities affected by reduced timber harvests.

The Thomas Committee

In October 1989, the secretaries of agriculture and interior named and intergency scientific committee to address the conservation of the spotted owl. Jack Ward Thomas, a wellknown biologist and researcher for the Forest Service in Oregon, was designated chairman.

In a report released last April, the committee found that the owl was in danger and that protection of adequate habitat was needed. The committee recommended an initial strategy based upon establishment of a system of Habitat Conservation Areas on federal forestlands. Logging would be prohibited within these HCAs, and cutover lands would be allowed to return to old-growth status. Several aspects of the report caused controversy, including the decisions the scientists made concerning the necessary size of the HCAs, the allowable distance between HCAs, and the treatment of timber stands between HCAs. The followup strategy recommended by the committee was an intensive research program to develop and prove ways that oldgrowth forest management could eventually be carried out in the HCAs without destroying the owl’s habitat.

Committee members were quick to point out that their report (widely referred to as the -Thomas Report”) was not meant to be a comprehensive prescription for forest management or oldgrowth protection. Nor were the recommendations, they said, the very best strategy for protection of the owl. Instead, they insisted, they had proposed the minimum strategy that would prevent the owl’s extinction, on the basis of currently known science. That assertion was met with considerable criticism, as the affected interests pointed out the uncertain nature of the scientific knowledge and the need to consider economic and social impacts in addition to biology.

Old-Growth Legislation

At this writing, three bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives that propose a long-term solution to the old-growth situation in the Pacific Northwest. The ha several other bills that either called for new studies or aimed at specific targets such as the banning of log exports or accelerated community economic assistance.

Congressman Jim Jontz (IN) introduced H. R. 4492 with enthusiastic support from the Ancient Forest Coalition -a group of more than 100 national, regional, and local environmental organizations dedicated to the preservation of the remaining old-growth forests, This bill establishes a process by which Congress would designate an “ancient forest reserve” for permanent protection, off limits to timber harvesting and road building. The bill has over 125 cosponsors in the House but has not been reported out of subcommittee.

H.R. 5295, authored by Congressman Bruce Vento (MN), chairman of the House Interior Committee’s Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands, would establish a 6.3-million-acre ancient forest reserve as part of existing national forest plans. The reserve would be designated by the secretaries of agriculture and interior, based on the recommendations of a scientific committee, and its boundaries could change over time. Congressman Vento’s bill has been approved by his subcommittee and was slated for full Interior Committee consideration in October.

In the House Agriculture Committee, the latest proposal has been developed under the leadership of Harold Volkmer (MO), chairman of the Subcommittee on Forests, Family Farms, and Energy. (This legislation should receive a bill number soon.) It would establish an old-growth forest reserve based on the proposed HCAs, but without acreage requirements. Congress would designate the reserve after receiving recommendations from the secretaries of agriculture and interior. This bill also includes an extensive community-development and economic-impact program developed by the ranking minority member on the subcommittee, Sid Morrison (WA).

The Administration’s proposal

On September 21, Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter and Secretary of Interior Manuel Lujan announced the recommendations of the task force they had established in june to respond to the listing of the spotted owl as threatened. In it, they urged quick Congressional passage of legislation that would:

* Approve a timber-sale program of 3.2 billion board feet in Forest Service Region 6 (3.0 billion in new sales and .2 billion in holdovers from 1990).

* Permit no timber sales from Habitat Conservation Areas, but establish protection from challenges under other forest-management legislation. This was not, they argued, to prevent judicial review of plans, but to make it clear that Congress expected these sales to go forward without restriction from the laws that were previously in effect.

* Convene the Endangered Species Committee to do a full review of federal timber-sales and land-management plans in relation to the spotted owl.

The task force, chaired by Secretary Yeutter, was kept in operation and was asked to conduct a long-range study that would include the challenges of conserving old-growth forests, protecting all potentially endangered species, minimizing abrupt disruptions of local communities, and developing new forestry techniques that reduce the incompatibility between timber harvesting and habitat protection. In addition, the task force will study the concept of a -timber reserve” that would enable the federal lands to be more responsive to cyclical changes in timber demand.

COPYRIGHT 1990 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group