Northwest Forest Plan at 20: It’s Working!
The Northwest Forest Plan is working according to schedule. Like a fine wine, the Plan predicted our forests would get better with age; as forests that were cut in the 20th century eventually matured, the landscape would slowly regrow beautiful and bountiful old forests. In the 20 years that the Plan has been in place, our federal forests have recruited new old-growth habitat and have dramatically slowed the loss of high-quality habitat. And while losses still outnumber gains, according to the Plan, we should begin to see net gains in old-growth forests by mid-century.
On June 9, 2015, an inter-agency group composed of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, released its 20 year status review of the Northwest Forest Plan. The study found:
The Northwest Forest Plan makes a big difference in forest management. The loss of old-growth has been nearly stopped on federal forests (and the loss that does exist is almost exclusively due to natural disturbances) while non-federal old-growth continues to be lost to logging
Outside of Washington State, marbled murrelet populations appear stable. (Flip side: Washington’s murrelet population is plummeting precipitously.)
While murrelet habitat is largely stable on federal lands, it is still disappearing from non-federal lands. To ensure murrelet’s long-term survival, we need to arrest the loss of habitat on non-federal lawns.
For northern spotted owls, the good news is that the loss of habitat on federal lands has been drastically slowed. The bad news is that non-federal lands are still getting hammered, placing greater strain on federal lands for spotted owl conservation.
Our federal forests are still producing jobs. Recreation spending is the number one job creator on lands under the Plan.
For more information, EPIC has provided a longer analysis of the report below. (Warning: for forest nerds only!)
Status and Trends of Late-Successional and Old-Growth Forests
Overall, the amount of older forest on all lands within the NWFP boundary has decreased by 5.9 to 6.2 percent between 1993 and 2012, depending on which definition of older forest was used. Because of new recruitment, these losses are tempered: negative net changes in amount of older forests on federal lands managed under the Plan’s guidance have been small—a 2.8 to 2.9 percent decrease. These numbers are consistent with the expected losses under the NWFP.
Most of the loss on federal lands coincided with large wildfires, and thus the areas that incurred the largest losses of older forest (OGSI-80 and OGSI-200) on federal lands (based on area) were the Oregon Western Cascades, Oregon Klamath, and California Klamath which have experienced large wildfires since 1993. The largest percentage loss (8.6 percent) was on reserved allocations (Late-Successional, Riparian, Congressional) on USFS lands in northwest California owing to fire. That said, wildfire proportionately occurred in fire-prone areas. Fires have the capability of increasing the speed at which forests develop old-growth characteristics by adding important snags and downed wood.
Over the last 20 years, older forests have become slightly more fragmented from disturbances on federal lands at the scale of the Plan, but again, in some smaller landscapes such as the Siuslaw National Forest, the older forests have not only increased in abundance, but have also become somewhat less fragmented. Overall, federal forests are far more contiguous and less fragmented than nonfederal forests.
Status and Trends of Marbled Murrelet Populations and Habitat
Based on at sea surveys of marbled murrelets across the range of the Northwest Forest Plan, researchers estimate that there are approximately 19,700 murrelets. Since surveys the inception of the Plan, annual population estimates for the entire NWFP area ranged from about 16,600 to 22,800 murrelets. Populations range from a low of 71 in the far end of the study range (San Francisco to Shelter Cove, CA) to a high of 7,880 murrelets in northern Oregon (from Coos Bay north to the Columbia River, Oregon).
At the state scale, local population trends are not always clear. In Washington, there is a clear declining linear trend in Washington of 4.6 percent decline per year. There is no evidence of a trend in Oregon or California, no trend was detected. At the NWFP landscape level, no trend was detected for the overall area, although the trend estimate is negative owing to Washington’s decline.
Marbled Murrelet Habitat
While the murrelet populations appear to be somewhat stable, the status review’s analysis of marbled murrelet habitat is somewhat bleak. As stated in the report:
While there is some uncertainty about gains and net change, we believe that a real loss in habitat has occurred from 1993 to 2012. Based on our bookend data, the rate of loss of higher-suitability habitat on reserved lands has been about 2.5 percent over the 20-year period (due mostly to fire, especially in Oregon; Table 2-12). However, rate of loss of higher-suitability habitat has been about 10 times greater (26.6 percent) on nonfederal lands, due mostly to timber harvest (Table 2-13). Conservation of the threatened murrelet is not possible if such losses continue at this rate into the future.
If the amount of higher-suitability habitat for murrelets is to be maintained at its current level, and given that almost half of the higher-suitability habitat is on nonfederal lands, accomplishing this goal will require significant contributions from nonfederal lands. Over time, as habitat on federal reserved lands increases in quality, less reliance on nonfederal lands may be warranted. Thus, currently, there are limits on the extent to which the NWFP can protect remaining suitable habitat and prevent its ongoing loss.
. . . .
For the many younger stands in the murrelet range that were clear-cut harvested in the past century, the benefits of habitat development are far into the future. However, if management for late-successional and old-growth forests continues, projections show substantial increases of forest exceeding 150 years in age by 2050 on western federal lands (Mills and Zhou 2003). Shorter-term gains in habitat quality may occur as older forest fills in around existing suitable habitat and reduces edge and fragmentation effects in existing habitat, prior to the older forest developing the large limbs, nest platforms, and other characteristics of murrelet nesting habitat.
. . . .
Given declining murrelet population trends as well as habitat losses, in many areas, it is uncertain whether their populations will persist to benefit from potential future increases in habitat suitability. This underscores the need to arrest the loss of suitable habitat on all lands, especially on nonfederal lands and in the relatively near term (3-5 decades). (Emphasis added).
Further, in studying the various factors which might influence murrelet population dynamics, such as climate and ocean conditions, the status review concluded that “amount and distribution of higher-suitability nesting habitat are the primary factors influencing abundance and trend of murrelet populations.”
Northern Spotted Owl Habitat:
The good news is that the Northwest Forest Plan is working and has slowed the destruction of northern spotted owl habitat. Within federal lands, approximately 7.2 percent of nesting and roosting habitat was lost; however, much of this was offset by new habitat recruitment—i.e., forests growing large and old enough to function as suitable habitat. Together, on all federal lands, there was an estimated rangewide net decrease of 1.5 percent of nesting/roosting due to the recruitment of new habitat offsetting losses. In the reserve network (Riparian, Late-Successional), the net decline was greater at 4 percent, which is less than the anticipated loss of 5 percent over two decades in the NWFP’s design. It is expected that by mid-century, new recruitment will overtake habitat loss.
Fragmentation of NWFP forests has likewise slowed. Rangewide, nesting/roosting habitats have become slightly more fragmented on federal lands (both reserved and nonreserved) with about a 1.1 percent conversion of core habitat to edge habitat. In California, reserved habitat has become slightly more contiguous in the wet and quick growing Coast Range and Cascades (0.8 to 1.2 percent respectively) and more fragmented in the drier Klamath province (3.8 percent).
The bad news is that private lands are still being hammered and that losses from private lands are placing greater strain on federal lands for conservation. Dispersal habitat, which is more open than nesting/roosting or foraging habitat, is important as it allows gene flow between high-quality northern spotted owl habitat. On federal lands, dispersal habitat has increased by 2.2 percent. However, at the landscape level, there has been a 10 percent gross loss of dispersal habitat around the periphery of federal forests, likely due to private timber harvesting near federal lands. This heavy loss means that there has been a net loss of 2.3 on all lands, federal and private. This has caused a loss of connection between some areas, including between the Oregon Coast Range and the Western Cascades and an increasing isolation of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
There are other unknown or unquantifiable threats. Climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of large wildfires. Further, changing climates may cause species composition changes, particularly a move to less hospitable pine forest types. Lastly, barred owls are displacing northern spotted owls and may be forcing northern spotted owls to utilized less suitable and marginal habitat.
Recently, logging on federal land has increased while logging on non-federal land has slowed. Between 2001 to 2009, timber offered for sale on federal lands more than doubled, and timber actually harvested in 2009 was 60 percent greater than that of 2001—volumes not seen since immediately after the adoption of the Plan. In contrast, private timber harvests have dropped. As a result, in 2012, the percentage of timber harvested on federal lands compared to total harvest on all ownerships increased from 3.2 to 9.6 percent.
While timber production is undoubtedly important to rural communities, recreation visitor spending is the single largest job-creator associated with lands under the NWFP. In 2012, NWFP recreation visitors supported approximately 6,900 direct jobs and 2,900 indirect and induced jobs in the NWFP area.