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Breaking Down The Northwest Forest Plan Report Card

Rob Manning/OPB

Northwest  forest policy is once again heating up.  Last week, federal officials presented their latest assessment of the Northwest Forest Plan, which covers more than 2 million acres of federal land in Washington, Oregon and California.  Jes Burns from our EarthFix team gets together with JPR’s Liam Moriarty to break it all down.

Q: Can you remind us what the Northwest Forest Plan is?

A: The Northwest Forest Plan was adopted back in 1994. It’s what essentially ended the Timber Wars in the Northwest – That’s when timber and environmental interests were locked in tense battles over logging on public lands. Logging had come to a standstill because of endangered species lawsuits around the spotted owl. Many Northwesterners remember when then-President Clinton came to Portland and literally sat all the different players down at a huge table at the convention center and then called for a way forward.   

The Northwest Forest plan was that way. It called for a balanced approach to meet conservation, tribal, and socioeconomic needs on public forest lands. And very importantly – it was a plan designed to work over the course of decades.   

Q: What did the federal officials release on Tuesday?

A: Every five years federal agencies are required to release a “monitoring report.” It’s kind of like a scientific report card looking at whether the Northwest Forest Plan is meeting the goals it was set to accomplish. Tuesday’s release was the 20-year monitoring report. And after 20 years of study, scientists are getting enough data to make some conclusions about what’s happening out in the forests.

Q: The northern spotted owl is kind of the poster-species for the Northwest Forest Plan. How is the owl doing?

A: This is one of those places where scientists think they’re finally getting enough information to really know what’s going on.  And the answer is they’re not doing great. The population of the owl is decreasing at about 4 percent per year – that’s higher than just five years ago.  

Researchers have been monitoring the owl’s survival rates in 11 different plots of forest land across the Northwest. In most of those test areas, the number of owls is dropping. The problem is worst in Washington state. Oregon and California, are holding pretty steady in recent years.

Fueling this is not just habitat loss – although that is still happening.  It’s also the incursion of the barred owl, which is just out-competing the spotted owl.   On the habitat side, catastrophic wildfire - especially in northern California and southern Oregon – really disrupted this interconnected matrix of old growth that owls need to thrive.

The upside of this is that the decline is within the range predicted in the original Northwest Forest Plan.

Q: The plan predicted owl losses?

A: It did.  It also predicted an eventual growth in the number of spotted owls. So a lot of the management goals in the Northwest Forest Plan were long term. That’s because forests take a long time to grow and recover. The plan said if reserves were allowed to age naturally they would become habitat.  

A lot of those forest lands were logged over the past 70 years and just haven’t had enough time to age into being good spotted owl habitat. If the owl can survive, the habitat should be terrific for future generations.

This quirk in the math also applies to old growth forests.  there’s been a 3 percent net loss in the past 20 years.  That’s because too much of these old forests are  being lost to wildfire, logging, and insect infestations  — and not enough is  maturing into old-growth. Under the plan, that should flip-flop in the coming decades.

Q: What does this new report say about a longstanding criticism of the Northwest Forest Plan: That it has really never produced the timber harvest it promised?

A: That is still true. The plan promised 800 million to 900 million board feet per year coming off land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The latest figures included in the report – for 2012 — puts harvest rate at about 650 million board feet off of federal land.  One caveat of this is that even though the harvest rates have been increasing since the Great Recession, the number of timber industry jobs has remained pretty stagnant over the same time period.

Actually right now the monitoring report says recreation on federal forests is the largest generator of economic activity off the land covered by the Northwest Forest Plan.

Q: What’s next for all of this?

A: The Northwest Forest Plan is due for an update.  This year forest managers kicked off the early stages of that process and Northwesterners should expect to be hearing a lot about this for the next five years because that’s how long it’s going to take. Tuesday’s monitoring report will serve as the scientific scaffolding for that whole process.  

Obviously the timber harvest issue will need to be addressed, as will wildfire and the impacts of the barred owl. And the elephant in the room this time around is definitely climate change. This is going to have a huge effect on the forests – and one not really considered when the original plan was drafted 21 years ago.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.