Proposed changes would increase logging in National Forests
Proposed changes to NW Forest Plan
INCREASED LOGGING DUE IN NW
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer
The Bush administration is moving forward with a series of initiatives to increase logging in the national forests of the Northwest.
While the timber industry is cautiously optimistic, environmental groups accuse the administration of trying to gut regulations that have protected old-growth forests from logging.
One of President Bush's chief forestry advisers said the initiatives are only designed to meet timber harvest goals set by the Clinton administration.
"Our commitment right now is to try to make the plan work, and to produce the results that were described and committed to by the previous administration," said Mark Rey, the undersecretary of agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.
In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton unveiled his Northwest Forest Plan.
Billed as a compromise between protecting old-growth-dependent creatures and supplying logs to sawmills dependent on federal timber, the plan pledged to sell 1.1 billion board feet annually ---- roughly a quarter of the peak harvests in the 1980s. But timber sales have dropped below 300 million board feet, mostly due to lawsuits and procedural hurdles imbedded within the plan.
Bush, who courted and received the support of the timber industry in 2000, vowed to break the log jam.
Over the past several weeks, his administration has proposed a series of rule-making initiatives that could ease the way for federal timber sales. Among them:
* Changing the Northwest Forest Plan's aquatic conservation strategy to make it easier to plan timber sales within already-degraded watersheds. Environmental groups have successfully sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for giving blanket approval to such timber sales, even when they harm stream habitat in the short term.
* Dropping a time-intensive requirement that biologists survey for little-known species of fungi, mosses and other species thought to live in old-growth forests before allowing timber sales to go forward. This would resolve a lawsuit by timber groups.
* And Friday, the Forest Service proposed a rule that would streamline development of local forest plans nationwide and limit public involvement.
Together, the changes are aimed at relieving the government of the "analysis paralysis" decried by Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth in congressional testimony earlier this year.
Others view the rule changes more ominously.
"Under the Bush administration's plan, the resource extraction industries and agency bureaucrats will call all the shots," said Steve Holmer, campaign coordinator for the American Lands Alliance in Washington, D.C.
The changes could substantially boost logging of the westside national forests of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The Northwest Forest Plan's aquatic conservation strategy and survey-and-manage provision established tough requirements for protecting fish and wildlife, but they have also driven up the cost of planning timber sales.
Both are linchpins of Clinton's forest plan, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore.
Without them, he said, the plan's most important environmental safeguards fall away.
Stahl and other activists point out that the late U.S. District Judge William Dwyer ruled the forest plan barely complied with environmental laws, but only if the agencies closely followed all of the mitigation measures spelled out in the 1994 document. Dwyer, who died in February, would have taken a dim view of the changes now proposed by the Bush administration, Stahl said.
Those changes are likely to be tested in court.
"If Dwyer's alive, your chances are zero," Stahl said. "If he's dead, it's potluck."
As for Rey's contention that the administration is merely trying to follow through on the political promise made by Clinton, Stahl said it's a moot point.
"Let's just call it as it is," he said. "The Bush administration wants to cut more timber. Who cares what the reason is?"
Angst over old growth
In this case, cutting more timber will mean cutting old growth.
Roughly 80 percent of the landscape is off-limits to commercial timber harvesting under the forest plan. To meet Clinton's harvest goal, the scientists and planners who formulated the forest plan had to look for pockets of big old trees.
They found lots of them along the western flanks of the Cascades.
But logging in those areas has become increasingly controversial. Besides the now-expected tree sits and legal challenges, local Forest Service planners can't even be assured selling old trees will get the support of the very people they're purported to help ---- blue-collar timber workers.
"I think they should be looking elsewhere at this point in time," said Bob Guenther, president of the Thurston-Lewis Central Labor Council in Centralia. "These old-growth trees need to be protected, and we need to see if we can look elsewhere for our fiber."
Seizing on opinion polling showing public discomfort with logging in old growth forests, environmental groups such as the Vancouver-based Gifford Pinchot Task Force have promoted thinning sales instead.
Although selectively logging smaller trees isn't as lucrative as clearcutting, environmental and labor groups say thinning has a twofold benefit: It clears out undergrowth prone to insects, disease and fire, while providing jobs in depressed rural communities.
Since 1990, wood-product jobs have dropped from about 7,400 to 5,400 in Cowlitz, Lewis, Clark and Skamania counties, according to state labor figures.
Logging has declined not only on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but also on state and private lands.
Since at least 1970, logging on private land has easily provided the bulk of all timber harvested in the Evergreen State. Two years ago, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, private tree plantations accounted for 83 percent of the 3.7 billion board feet of timber cut in Washington. A decade earlier, the harvest was 5.8 billion board feet.
Timber companies are looking for wood where they can get it.
Frank Backus, chief forester for SDS Lumber Co. in Bingen, said the Gifford Pinchot once provided about 20 million to 30 million board feet annually for the company's two mills. Since then, SDS and other timber companies have turned toward private and state timber lands to make up the difference.
"The supply wasn't something we could rely on," he said.
Backus believes the national forests should be managed in a way that reflects the dynamic nature of a forest, not in the regimented fashion of the Northwest Forest Plan's land allocations: an owl reserve here, a harvest area there. The inevitable forest fire, flood or insect infestation will quickly redo the landscape envisioned by the planners.
"I think the greater public out there is beginning to be aware of the fallacies of the zoning mentality in natural resources," Backus said. "There's a real fallacy that you can draw a line on a map, and that it's going to be like that in perpetuity."
Even so, Backus said he'd like to see the Northwest Forest Plan have a chance to work.
Rey, a onetime timber industry lobbyist and Republican staffer on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said "the jury is still out" on the forest plan's long-term viability. Protecting old growth would require a change so significant from the core of the plan that Congress would have to get involved, Rey said.
"We'd be receptive to sitting down and looking at something different," he said, "but that would require legislation."
For now, in terms of delivering a substantial amount of federal timber to area mills, Rey made it clear the Northwest Forest Plan is the only game in town.
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