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What’s best for Oregon trees? Step B: Understanding Northwest Forest Plan (1994)

What’s best for Oregon trees? Step B: Understanding Northwest Forest Plan (1994)

Part Three of Five –

Historical Perspective-

Understanding the Northwest Forest Plan requires looking back in history to gain perspective.  Seeds for the Northwest Forest Plan were sown over one hundred and thirty years ago. Roots of the Plan were well-fed by many decades of complex economic, social, and environmental points of view, and, equally complex outcomes that resulted from natural-resource-related interests during our Nation’s eras of westward-expansion, nation-building, and increased urbanization. During those times, environmental changes took place that had never been seen in such large scale in our developing nation as farmers, loggers, and miners staked their claims. Vast amounts of forest acreage were cleared for the wealth and benefits produced through agriculture, mining,  logging, and timber-related operations.


Henry David Thoreau was among the first in a group of Americans to express concerns about the negative impacts agriculture and industry were having on the natural world.  In an 1860 speech to farmers, Thoreau explained the ecology of trees and encouraged the planting of trees. Conservation points of view and actions to preserve the environment were recognized  and promoted at the turn of the nineteenth century by John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and presidents Harrison, Cleveland, and McKinley. The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed the President of the United States to set aside forest lands on public domain. About 50,000,000 acres were collectively put into reserve by these three presidents.

In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt entered the presidency. Conservation measures were super-charged by his personal conviction to preserving the natural world. During his administration, Roosevelt took major steps to promote the management and sustainability of natural resources when he: signed the National Reclamation Act (1902), established the first National Wildlife Refuge at Pelican Island in Florida (1903), helped create the United States Forest Service (1905), appointed Gifford Pinchot as the first head of U.S. Forest Service, increased the number of national parks, and significantly enlarged forest reserves to total 230,000,000 acres for conservation purposes.

The foundation for an important ecological ideal was put in place – the concept that natural resources are not inexhaustible. Two points of view also emerged: conservationists- those who wanted regulated use of forest lands for both public and commercial enterprise; and preservationists- those who wanted forest for natural beauty, scientific study, and recreation. So far as I’ve learned, the two philosophies melded together and would later impact environmental decision-making. The definition for conservation in a twenty-first century dictionary, “the preservation and careful management of the environment and of natural resources,” supports this notion. One I will get back to in a moment…

Endangered Species-

In the mean-time, this brings my quest for understanding the Northwest Forest Plan to the time period between roughly 1909 to 1990. Much turbulence in both the nation and the world put the turn-of- the-last-century, monumental conservation foundations on hold. The United States faced times of war, international and domestic crises, economic depression, recovery, and inflation.

The country also faced catastrophic environmental impacts caused by unregulated industrial pollution emissions and chemical use, that were released into air, land, and water.  The natural resources Theodore Roosevelt and others sought to preserve were increasingly threatened at alarming rates… many animals and plants were fast becoming endangered; some neared extinction; and one, the Passenger Pigeon, actually became extinct.

The results: Several Endangered Species Acts were passed. The first was signed into federal law in 1966; it was followed by others in 1969 and 1973. The 1973 Act superseded the others and was amended in 1978 and 1982. The 1973 Act plus its amendments define specific criteria used to identify species that are threatened or in danger of extinction. Once a species was identified and put on the list, plans are required that serve to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.” Further details about the Endangered Species Act can be accessed by clicking on the Webliograpy list, number two and three links, or by watching the videos at the bottom of this post. 

Northwest Forest Plan –

Recall the seeds and roots I mentioned for the Northwest Forest Plan? The one hundred thirty year germination period for the Plan ended in 1990- the same year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services listed the northern spotted owl  as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. This action mandated conservation responsibility for the species by all Federal Agencies.

The ideals founded in the conservation movement that started back in the 1860’s were put into play… actions that eventually lead to the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan. Because the habitat for the northern spotted owl is exclusively limited to late-successive and old-growth forest, forest experts were consulted. A plan to protect and recover the northern spotted owl soon proved to be a very complex undertaking. Options and strategies were soon tangled in legal challenges that resulted in multiple court injunctions that shut down timber operations on federal lands in the northern spotted owl range in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California.

Long story short, the Northwest Forest Plan finally emerged out of a Forest Conference held on April 2, 1993 that was convened by  then President Bill Clinton. The President, along with, Vice President Al Gore, five cabinet-level officials, a team of scientists, economists, sociologists, and other experts attended the conference in Portland, Oregon.

At the conclusion of the conference, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior were directed by President Clinton to collaborate in the development of a strategy that would solve the legal issues so the gridlock caused by court injections would be lifted. The President also required that the strategy include five key principles: (cut from the site- http://www.reo.gov/nwfp/)

  1. Never forget human and economic dimensions of issues
  2. Protect long-term health of forests, wildlife, and watercourses
  3. Focus on scientifically sound and ecologically credible strategies
  4. Produce a predictable and sustainable level of timber and other resources
  5. Ensure that federal agencies work together

A year later, in 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted when Federal agencies signed a Record of Decision. A framework and system of Standards and Guideline were established along with an interagency structure that included two goals: (cut from the site- http://www.reo.gov/nwfp/)

  1. Cooperative planning, improved decision making, and coordinated implementation of the forest ecosystem management component of the NWFP on Federal lands within the range of the northern spotted owl.
  2. Improved coordination and collaboration with State, Tribal, and local governments as they seek to implement management approaches that support of complement the goals of the NWFP.

These goals were intended to support the implementation of a forest management approach that had never been used before- an ecosystem management approach that is based on science, ecologically doable, and legally responsible. In addition, the plan provided a way for agencies to work toward a common goal using a single policy and unified framework. Up until the Northwest Forest Plan, agencies were following individual missions and agendas. To assist agencies in tracking efforts and progress, the NWFP includes structures for committees, reviews, and monitoring.

In my pursuit to understand the NWFP, I discovered that research on this topic is cumbersome, at best. The Northwest Forest Plan is a complex set of policies, decisions, standards and guidelines. No single source appears to contain the plan in its entirety, however, I did locate one website that is a repository for access to the plan, amendments, reports of decision, monitoring reports, and resources related to the Northwest Forest Plan. Whether it is currently being updated needs to be verified, the last update appears to be April 2008. The data is on a federal government website and maintained by the Regional Ecosystem Office, PO Box 3623, 333 SW 1st, Portland, OR 97208, (503)808-2165.

In the next post, I will explore a current issue that is stirring up forest management debate- Senator Ron Wyden’s proposed legislation, the Oregon and California Land Grant of 2013. I wonder if it is threatening to cause the extinction of the Northwest Forest Plan. If so, will that be a good or a bad next step?

Ideas in this post were synthesized through reflective reading of information on websites listed in the following Webliography:

  1. Conservation in the United States; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_in_the_United_States
  2. ESA Basics: 40 Years of Conserving Endangered Species; http://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/history_ESA.pdf 
  3. Endangered Species Act: A History of the Endangered Species Act of 1973- Timeline; http://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/timeline.html
  4. Northwest Forest Plan- The First 15 Years (1994 – 2008): Summary of Key Monitoring Findings; www.reo.gov/monitoring/reports/15yr-report/summary/index.shtml
  5. The Northwest Forest Plan; http://www.oregonwild.org/oregon_forests/old_growth_protection/westside-forests/northwest_forest_plan
  6. Northwest Forest Plan Historic Overview; http://www.reo.gov/training/historic01.htm
  7. Fact Sheet About the NWFP; http://www.reo.gov/general/aboutnwfp.htm
  8. Regional Ecosystem Office; http://www.reo.gov_
  9. Historic Northwest Forest Plan needs a careful overhaul; http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.7/historic-northwest-forest-plan-needs-a-careful-overhaul
Endangered Species Act – Videos


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