Conservation Groups Strategize
How to Preserve the Northwest Forest Plan
by Shelley Spalding, OPA Board
In October 2015 more than 40 individuals, representing nearly 30 different conservation organizations, met in Portland to discuss and strategize how best to be prepared for the Forest Service’s Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) revision process and its potential weakening of the landmark plan. In fact, long before the visionary and controversial NWFP had been drafted, many of these folks were already actively committed to protecting and restoring old-growth habitat. The combined knowledge, experience, and dedication of people in the room was almost overwhelming!
The original NWFP, adopted in 1994, was designed as a blueprint for restoring badly overcut federal forests within the range of the Northern Spotted Owl (northern California, Oregon and Washington). The plan is unique in scope and magnitude: it was the first truly science-based, landscape-scale approach to managing our public lands, and it provided a clear set of consistent guidelines across the region. The Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS), using the best available science on aquatic ecosystems, was developed as a foundational element of the NWFP. Standards and guidelines are the glue that holds the ACS together.
The purposes of this proactive strategy meeting, cohosted by The Wilderness Society and Western Environmental Law Center, were to:
- Discuss how the 2012 Planning Rule will impact the future of the NWFP;
- Identify areas of agreement regarding principles, policy, and messaging for engaging in the NWFP revision process; and
- Develop a coordinated strategy to defend the bedrock principles of the NWFP and advocate for the retention of a regional framework in forest plan revisions.
To this end, after a briefing on changes to the planning process resulting from the 2012 Planning Rule, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss what is different about issues, organizing, economics, agency relations, and the legal and political landscape.
Although the plan was designed to be a 100-year restoration plan, it’s been 20 years since its adoption and a lot has changed. Perhaps the most dramatic of those changes is climate change, with dire predictions of hotter, drier conditions, increased frequency and intensity of fire, and more precipitation falling as rain with less snowpack. On the positive side, recent analysis has revealed that our high biomass Northwest forests sequester more carbon than nearly any other forested ecosystem on the planet, and by protecting all remaining mature forests in fixed reserves, we could create a forest carbon trust on a regional scale.
Other changes since the adoption of the NWFP identified at the meeting included the growth of the recreation interests/industry, a shrinking timber industry in terms of number/size of mills but not in terms of its appetite (for more timber); high agency turnover and low morale; falling Forest Service budgets; Barred Owls occupying Spotted Owl habitat; more collaborative processes that take up time and resources with questionable results; and litigation that is costlier and harder to win.
There was significant agreement in the meeting regarding overarching goals for the future of the NWFP. These goals included:
- Retaining the regional framework of the NWFP in an enforceable way (with measurable standards and not just “desired future conditions” as described in the 2012 Planning Rule);
- Eliminating salvage logging;
- Upholding the ACS and riparian reserves;
- Incorporating climate change mitigation and adaptation;
- Reducing the roads system mileage; and
- Improving protections for mature forests.
In moving forward, the need for strategic communication with the public and media was discussed, including a massive ACS campaign focusing on the need for standards and guidelines.
The Forest Service has begun the process of crafting its replacement for the existing plan. They expect to finish that work by 2019. We all know that we need more resilient forests with improved habitat connectivity to ensure for future generations the benefits of our public lands, including quality drinking water, diversity of wildlife, and mature and old-growth trees. And we all know that it will take a village—many, many voices—to achieve that outcome.