Science (Vol 309, No. 5735, pgs. 688-690)
July 29, 2005


By Erik Stokstad

The ambitious Northwest Forest Plan tried to balance desires for
timber and biodiversity, but preservation trumped logging--and
research. Can the plan be made as adaptable and science-friendly as

For decades, a steady stream of logging trucks rolled out of forests
in the Pacific Northwest, piled high with ancient Douglas firs, valued
for their huge trunks. Old-growth forests on private lands were the
first casualties, and as they disappeared, the loggers turned to
national forests. Despite outcries from environmentalists, the pace of
clear-cutting intensified in the 1980s--reaching a peak of more than 5
billion board feet a year, enough to build 350,000 three-bedroom
houses, much of it from old growth. Then in the early 1990s,
environmentalists finally found a weapon powerful enough to fight
destruction of these venerable forests: the northern spotted owl,
which needs large tracts of old trees to survive.

Not long after the owl was added to the endangered species list in
1990, environmental groups sued on its behalf, and a federal judge
ordered a moratorium on logging in owl habitat. The rumble of trucks
from the national forests silenced, but the volume of the debate only
got louder. As it played on national media, the bitter battle pitted
birds against jobs. Activists spiked trees to damage mills, while
loggers held protests and cut down old-growth trees at night. The
tension ratcheted up.

Out of this political crisis came the largest, most ambitious forest
conservation plan ever. Called the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), it
covers 9.8 million hectares of federal land in California, Oregon, and
Washington. Striving for compromise, the plan tried to balance the
needs of loggers and endangered species. To meet that tall order, the
architects set up special research areas to devise new ways of cutting
timber that would be benign or even beneficial to wildlife. Economic
and ecological progress would be monitored, and the plan would be
altered decade by decade as needed--a process called adaptive

Now, more than 10 years and $50 million in monitoring costs later,
researchers and forest managers have taken the first major stab at
assessing how well the plan is working. This fall, they will publish a
series of extensive reports, with a synthesis slated for release this
month. The bottom line, they say, is that the plan is basically on
track: Old-growth forest has been preserved, and watersheds are
improving. But several key goals have not been met. Some forests face
the risk of catastrophic fires; the spotted owl population is still
declining; and timber sales never came near projections, meaning lost
jobs and dollars for both the timber industry and the U.S. Forest
Service (USFS).

Another shortcoming is the relative dearth of new approaches for
improving the plan. Despite good intentions, the goal of devising and
studying alternative management strategies essentially fizzled.
Officials say that fixing this is a top priority, as is reducing fire

But keeping the plan on track--let alone boosting its activities--
faces serious challenges, as funding for the USFS in the Pacific
Northwest has fallen dramatically. Forest service officials say that
changes in regulations governing the plan, implemented by the Bush
Administration, will give them needed flexibility, but
environmentalists worry that the changes provide license for
irresponsible logging that could threaten remaining old-growth

Legal logjam

Several broad environmental laws passed in the 1970s made the conflict
between logging and old-growth conservation all but inevitable. The
Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 requires the conservation of
habitat that listed species depend on, and sections of the National
Forest Management Act mandate that populations of species be kept
viable. Forest service officials knew in the 1980s that the spotted
owl was likely to be listed but, under pressure from politicians in
the northwest, continued to allow cutting of old-growth forests--until
the Seattle Audubon Society and other groups sued.

In March 1989, a federal circuit judge blocked sales of timber within
the range of the owl, an area encompassing the remaining old growth.
Congress intervened, allowing a few timber sales to go through,
enraging environmentalists. The issue rose to prominence in the 1992
presidential campaign.

A few months after the election, President Clinton asked a large group
of scientists from USFS, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and
universities to provide a range of options that could end the judicial
moratorium. The Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT)
was charged with finding ways to protect the long-term health of the
forest across the range of the spotted owl while providing "a
predictable and sustainable level of timber sales and nontimber
resources that will not degrade the environment."

A core team of several dozen researchers, led by wildlife biologist
Jack Ward Thomas of USFS, holed up for 3 months in a Portland office
building, working around the clock and calling on more than 100
outside scientists when needed. "The mood was one of great intensity
and focus," says FEMAT participant Norman Johnson of Oregon State
University in Corvallis. From this came a 1366-page document that laid
out 10 distinct management options. All of them took a broad view,
focusing on managing the entire ecosystem rather than just the spotted
owl. But to survive court challenges, any plan had to comply with laws
aimed at species protection.

Clinton picked Option 9, which set up a patchwork of old-growth
areas--45 so-called Late Successional Reserves, totaling 2.8 million
hectares or almost 30% of federal land in the plan area. The primary
objective in these reserves was to ensure the survival of old-growth
forest habitat that the owl requires. Some 1.9 million hectares
outside the reserves, called the matrix, would be available for
logging, except near owl nests.

To figure out what type of management would be most compatible with
conservation and timber goals, the plan set aside 10 areas (see map,
below), totaling 603,000 hectares, for experimentation with
restoration and harvesting approaches. It also called for different
management strategies in various reserves, depending on local
conditions. For instance, the pine forests east of the Cascade Range
are drier and more prone to fire than those to the west, and decades
of fire suppression had led to a buildup of brush and deadwood. They
would need aggressive management, including thinning and prescribed
burns, to prevent catastrophic fires. To the west of the mountains, by
contrast, the idea was to accelerate the development of old-growth
habitat by thinning second-growth plantations.

Because officials expected salmon to be listed under ESA, the plan
also includes a substantial Aquatic Conservation Strategy. To prevent
erosion, which adds sediment and can destroy fish habitat, the plan
creates a system of riparian reserves: 100-meter-wide no-logging
strips on either side of streams, totaling 903,000 hectares. As more
was learned about watershed ecology, the buffers were to be adjusted
to the minimum size necessary to conserve fish, thus allowing more

Before it was implemented, Option 9 went to the departments of
Interior and Agriculture, where it was modified--presumably to make it
legally more airtight--without scientific advice from FEMAT. The
biggest change was to expand the scope of protection beyond species
listed under the ESA to include several hundred largely unstudied
species whose status was unknown. "The precautionary principle went
berserk at that point," Thomas says.

Under this additional "survey and manage" program, before any ground-
disturbing activity could take place, the agency had to check for the
presence of any of these organisms, including lichens and
invertebrates, and devise a plan to minimize impact on them. Although
this provision has helped the overall plan hold up to court
challenges, it had unintended and wide-ranging consequences. In
particular, because it made the plan substantially trickier to
implement, much logging and many adaptive-management experiments never
got off the ground. "It almost made it impossible to pursue the
actions in Option 9," says Thomas, who was chief of USFS from 1993 to

Charting progress

This spring, USFS and BLM began previewing the first monitoring
results. In some cases, the data are too sparse to yield a useful
assessment, because it took several years to design and implement the
monitoring programs. Researchers also note that a decade isn't much
time compared to the pace of forest succession and the century-long
horizon of the plan.

For old-growth forests, however, the trend appears positive. Older
forest increased by 245,000 hectares between 1994 and 2003, about the
amount originally expected. "Perhaps we can conclude for the short
term that the policies are working," says USFS's Melinda Moeur, who
led the old-growth monitoring team. But environmentalists counter that
the net increase--tabulated when an average tree diameter crosses a
certain threshold--means only marginal improvement in habitat, while
the 6800 hectares of older forest that were clear-cut represent real
setbacks. "The losses are catastrophic, while the gains are
incremental," says Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council
in Eugene.

The plan fell far short of its goal in terms of timber production.
About 0.8 billion board feet per year were expected to be put up for
sale each year; in most years less than half of that was. A major
factor was the stringent requirements of the "survey and manage"
program. Environmental groups also slowed things down with lawsuits to
prevent any harvesting they thought detrimental.

This decline in timber harvesting had both economic and ecological
effects. Although it cost roughly 23,000 timber-related jobs, that was
less than some had feared. Jobs with USFS also disappeared and were
not replaced. Yet over the decade, some 800,000 other jobs were
created in the region. As former timber workers and USFS employees
moved out, they were replaced by retirees and telecommuters. Overall,
the Pacific Northwest did not suffer economically because of the plan,
says forest economist Richard Haynes of USFS, but some rural
communities were hit quite hard. The shortfall of cutting also has
ecological implications. The paucity of clear-cutting in former
plantations, which would mimic the effects of a severe windstorm or
major fire, means that the northwest could end up many decades from
now with a lack of early successional forests, which are prized for
their biological diversity. And because there was little thinning,
which both provides timber and helps accelerate forest succession to
old growth, the fire hazard continued to increase in eastern old-
growth forests.

Another disappointment is that despite the progress in habitat
preservation, the population of spotted owls is estimated to be
declining at 3.4% per year. The culprit is a surprise: invasive
species. Barred owls, which are native to the central and eastern
United States, have moved west over the past few decades. The
newcomers seem to dissuade spotted owls from hooting, and spotted owls
are apparently more likely to leave their territory if barred owls
appear. Moreover, their diets overlap 75%, so they may be competing
for food as well. "Barred owls may ultimately be as big or bigger a
threat than habitat loss," says Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist
with USFS in Corvallis.

Trying to adapt

A cornerstone of the original plan was adaptive management--
essentially, learning by doing and monitoring--which had never been
tried on this scale before. The plan called for setting aside 10
adaptive- management areas (AMAs), where scientists would test ideas
about how to create or restore forest or riparian habitat and protect
threatened species while integrating timber harvest. Most never got
off the ground, which leaves the Forest Service with few new ideas to
guide efforts to improve the plan. "It's been an extremely frustrating
decade," says forest ecologist Bernard Bormann of USFS. "The progress
has been very slow."

Several factors scuttled the projects. Tension and lack of trust
between forest managers and environmental groups figured large. When
environmental groups felt that foresters were using AMAs primarily to
extract timber rather than to improve the ecosystems, they sued.
However, Dave Werntz of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance in
Bellingham, Washington, says that trust has been building, thanks to
better communication and good-faith efforts: "We're doing a better job
today at implementing the Northwest Forest Plan than any time in the

Other problems remain: When national forest budgets got tight, these
experiments were axed or fell lower on priority lists. In addition,
rather than being encouraged to try novel approaches, local managers
had to offer evidence to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) that
experiments wouldn't harm listed species. In many cases, managers
simply gave up trying to make projects work or walked on eggshells to
avoid legal trouble. "Caution seems to have trumped creativity," says
Elaine Brong, BLM's director for Oregon and Washington.

There were a few exceptions. The Blue River Adaptive Management Area,
for instance, was set up to recreate the effects of historical
patterns of forest fires across 23,000 hectares in the Cascades near
Eugene, Oregon. Cutting, combined with prescribed burns, has yielded
timber at a low but constant rate. The project began only 5 years ago,
so no results have emerged yet. But modeling indicates that the
experiment will create more old forest than the standard design of the
NWFP will and much more intermediate-age forests. "We'll end up with
what we believe is a more natural system," says geomorphologist Fred
Swanson of USFS. And thinning experiments in the Siuslaw National
Forest near Waldport, Oregon, are probing the best way to accelerate
the maturation of younger forests, says Bormann, the lead scientist.
Thanks to the thinning, the Siuslaw now produces more timber than any
other national forest in the NWFP.

Overall, scientists say the plan is succeeding at its goal of
conserving old-growth ecosystems. "So far so good," sums up Thomas
Spies, a forest ecologist with USFS. Conservation wasn't the exclusive
goal at the outset, of course, but the agency seems resigned that it
won't meet its timber harvests. "If we can keep them flat, then we'll
be doing pretty good," says USFS spokesperson Rex Holloway.

That state of affairs--if it holds--distresses the timber lobby but
pleases environmentalists. The Bush Administration has, however,
implemented several changes that could swing the balance, such as
eliminating the "survey and manage" requirements last year to boost
timber production. Other major changes, which affect all national
forests, include removing the concept of retaining viable populations
from the National Forest Management Act and lessening mandatory
monitoring and requirements for environmental-impact statements. The
changes "give total discretion to the local forest manager on how to
manage the forest," says Michael Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife in
Washington, D.C., which has filed suit.

How these changes specifically affect the operation of the plan will
be determined by the Regional Interagency Executive Committee (REIC),
made up of officials from USFS, BLM, and other agencies. This group
will also decide how to modify the plan based on what's been learned
over the past decade. A key priority is "getting the AMAs to work,"
says Linda Goodman, regional forester of USFS's Pacific Northwest
Region and a REIC member. One strategy is increased involvement of FWS
and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National
Marine Fisheries Service, which are responsible for endangered
species, in research design so that scientists and managers have more
latitude to take risks.

Yet as they hope to ramp up research and management activities for the
next decade, Forest Service managers face a declining budget and
downsizing. The agency's budget dropped 35% in the NWFP area during
the first decade, which forced it to cut 36% of positions and close
about 23% of its field offices in the plan area. "I'm very concerned,"
says Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, Seattle. "What's
happening is a real threat to carrying forward the plan successfully."
To a large extent, the question of funding will determine how much
monitoring and experimentation will continue--and what researchers
will have learned about managing the forests 10 years from now.

Copyright 2005 American Association for the Advancement of Science