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Northwest California’s National Forests in the Big Picture

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Stanley Creek in 1979, note people in the middle of the photo.
Stanley Creek in 1979, note people in the middle of the photo.

By Scott Greacen, for Forest & River News

A decade into the 21st century, the US Forest Service is only beginning to face the challenges that nearly overwhelmed it in the 20th. The tension between competing desires to exploit western forests for immediate gain or to protect them to provide for long-term sustainability first drove Teddy Roosevelt to create the National Forest system to secure both forests and key sources of clean, abundant water. But following World War II, the National Forests became the focus of an enormous logging and road-building boom.

By the 1970s, the timber extraction boom had begun to create busts for wildlife and water, with salmon populations crashing and serious questions being raised about the long-term viability and desirability of plantation forestry on the public landscape. The reforms that followed, including laws like the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), sought to mitigate but not to challenge the fundamental premise of “multiple-use” management–that the public forests could continue to support functional, productive ecosystems, endless recreational opportunities, and a timber program that would, not incidentally, pay to build and maintain a road network ten times larger than the interstate highway system.

Today, Northwest California’s four National Forests offer a particularly compelling case study of both the risks of continuing down the path of least resistance–of trying to pretend that we can have our cake and eat it too–as well as the potential rewards of setting a new course for the Forest Service, one that focuses on the restoration and protection of ecosystems for the critical services they provide, including clean water, biodiversity, and climate stability.The Obama administration has a critical opportunity on this front to take actions today that could set us collectively on a better course, and so save a great deal of pain in the future. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that the new administration is paying much attention to the National Forest system as such. Today’s opportunities could too easily become tomorrow’s regrets.

Most Americans believe that our National Forests are “protected,” in the vague sense that they are “the green areas on the map.” It’s certainly true that the Forest Service must meet higher standards in managing the National Forests than, for example, industrial logging corporations have to meet in deciding when and how to log on private lands.

But at its bureaucratic core, the Forest Service continues to be driven both by its budget and by its institutional culture to focus on logging. To this day, every National Forest has an annual timber quota, which is the focus of real attention from local and regional politicians. As well, timber sales continue to drive the budget of each National Forest. When logging doesn’t happen (or even when it proceeds under a different mechanism, like the rising practice of “stewardship contracting”) there often is no money for fisheries restoration, road maintenance, or even the basic monitoring that is supposed to follow logging projects. Thus, even though timber sales often are a net cost to taxpayers (because they cost more to prepare than logging companies will pay for the timber rights), each unit of the Forest Service has powerful incentives to continue to “get the cut out.”

What makes this situation even more frustrating today is that, because we have converted a substantial portion of our National Forest landscape into timber plantations, there is a lot of logging that can, and should, be done in the course of thinning those plantations, to reduce the risk of fire and increase forest resilience, as well as to introduce a more natural, uneven-aged stand structure. Some National Forests, like the Siuslaw in Oregon, have successfully shifted nearly all of their timber production into this kind of ecologically beneficial work. But in northwestern California, timber buyers continue to demand big trees and clearcuts from the Forest Service. The timber industry’s trade association, the American Forest Resource Council, has even appealed (unsuccessfully) a series of Forest Service projects in NW California on the grounds that they don’t produce enough timber.

Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the Forest Service basically wasted eight crucial years trying to loosen restrictions on logging, rewrite habitat protection plans, and sell every timber-management proposal as a “fuels reduction” project, even those deep in the backcountry. Today, the agency seems only too happy to treat the Bush “rollback” agenda as the status quo. Where the Bush administration invested real energy in making changes in public land management, under President Obama the Forest Service seems to be setting its own path with minimal direction from higher up the political food chain.

Opportunity for Changes

In the era of rapid climate change, the need to shift the priorities for National Forest management has become more urgent than ever. EPIC and its allies have sought to convince the Forest Service that the agency is poised on the brink of a new era, in which restoration and ecosystem protection will be the agency’s key missions. To move forward, we suggest, the agency needs to ratify a new social contract with the public by protecting roadless areas, mature and old-growth forests, and key habitat areas; with those areas of controversy “off the table,” the agency would gain much more public support for restoration efforts aimed at putting the landscape back together.

A process now underway suggests that at least part of the Forest Service understands the need to set new priorities. The regulations the agency must follow in implementing the National Forest Management Act were written in 1982, under the leadership of the former general counsel of logging giant Louisiana-Pacific, who headed the Forest Service under the Reagan Administration.

Attempts to rewrite those rules in 2000, 2005, and 2008 all failed, not least because of lawsuits that EPIC and other groups brought with attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center and the Center for Biological Diversity. Especially with respect to the proposed 2000 rules (which were withdrawn by the Bush Administration), environmental groups did not object so much to the attempt to lay out a new ecosystem protection mission for the Forest Service, as to the failure to create effective mechanisms to ensure the agency would actually follow the law and do the things it promised. In brief, we insist that any new rules keep the “teeth” that the current regulations contain, which require, among other things, that the Forest Service maintain viable populations of native wildlife across the forest landscape.

The problem is that the Forest Service has always sought to minimize or evade such restraints on its ability to act. So while the initial drafts of a proposed new round of regulations (which the agency calls the “NFMA planning rule”) contain a great deal that is headed in the right direction in terms of objectives, environmental groups remain deeply skeptical that the agency will ever propose, or even willingly accept, the kind of restraints, sideboards, and citizen-enforcement mechanisms that cruel experience has showed are necessary to ensure that performance begins to match the promises made to the public.


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