WHEN THE NORTHWEST Forest Plan took effect in 1994, the intent was to find a balance between the needs of the timber industry for wood from public land and the need to preserve forest ecosystems. It hasn't exactly worked out as advertised for the loggers.
In the intervening years, the annual harvest has only run at about 25 percent of what loggers say they were promised by the federal government, largely a result of environmental groups tying up timber sales in court. When the Bush administration took office in 2001, the message from the Northwest timber industry, which donated more than $1 million to the campaign, was to rejigger the plan so there would be fewer impediments to logging. The feds listened, much to the chagrin of the enviros.
Within the next two weeks, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Managementthe two agencies that administer federal lands in the Northwestwill unveil changes to the forest plan's provisions, known as "survey and manage," to monitor mollusks, red tree voles, lichen, and other flora and fauna unique to Northwest forests. (The survey-and-manage species, as they are known, did not include such animals as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, both covered under the much-stricter Endangered Species Act.) The idea behind survey-and-manage is to ensure that before timber is cut, biologists clamber about the forests to discover what species might be harmed. Discovery of a red tree vole nest, for example, could result in 10 acres of forest being deemed unsuitable for logging.
"It was basically illegal," says Ross Mickey, western Oregon manager of the American Forest Resources Council, an industry trade group. His group and others in the industry sued the feds, forcing the government, in a settlement of the suit, to retreat from what the industry saw as the extremes of survey-and-manage.
Predictably, environmentalists aren't happy about the changes in the forest plan, which they say will allow timber sales to proceed without proper identification and protection of species. Says Bill Arthur, Northwest director of the Sierra Club: "It's a substantial dagger in the heart of the Northwest Forest Plan." He says the changes to survey-and-manage are part of a strategy by the Bush administration to undo the forest plan piece by piece and "put King Timber back on the forest throne."
"It will mean that mature and old-growth forest can be logged pretty much with abandon," says Susan Jane Brown, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force in Vancouver, Wash.
Rex Holloway, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, disputes that. He says that under the new proposal there still will be requirements for species surveys and protection, although the new plan won't be as proscriptive as survey-and-manage. After a 90-day public-comment period, the new regulations could take effect by year's end.
Environmentalists already are sharpening their legal pencils. Brown says her group and others might sue the feds for rolling back protections of the Northwest Forest Plan, although, she says, it's possible Congress could pass legislation to take away that right.