In the late 1980s, before the Northwest Forest Plan, loggers were pulling 4.5 billion board feet of timber out of federal forests within the range of the forthcoming Plan. This amount was unsustainable, however, and was achieved largely through the liquidation logging of old-growth forests. The Northwest Forest Plan, adopted by the Clinton Administration in 1994, was largely a response to this excess and the ecological harm it inflicted on protected species like the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet.
Before the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted, the Forest Service predicted that around one billion board feet of timber could be removed per year under the Plan. This amount, known as the “probable sale quantity” or PSQ, was merely an estimate; it was not a maximum amount which could be removed, nor was it a minimum that must be met, nor was it even a goal of the Plan. Many noted, including Jack Ward Thomas, the future Chief of the Forest Service, that because of the measures to protect wildlife, this billion board foot PSQ was overly ambitious and would not likely be met. (Indeed, the current PSQ was reduced to a 805 million board feet.) Some viewed the PSQ estimate as a political maneuvering—a deliberately ambitious number set to appease the timber industry. The timber industry, however, viewed the PSQ as a promise.
The annual PSQ estimates have rarely been met. There are a variety of causes. First, Congress has not appropriated enough money to the Service to plan projects that could meet the PSQ. Second, as Jack Ward Thomas predicted, the billion board foot PSQ was likely an overestimate. Third, attempts by Big Timber to weaken or remove habitat protect—which were, as confirmed by the judiciary, illegal—stalled normal timber operations resulting in several years of way-below average logging. Fourth, market forces, including the Great Recession and stagnant timber prices, removed demand for federal timber. Fifth, weird math by the Forest Service—for example, that timber removed from the reserve network doesn’t count towards the PSQ—also contributes to low official numbers. Despite all this, the timber industry continues to view the PSQ as a promise.
Big Timber is on the offensive. In the upcoming Northwest Forest Plan revision, the timber industry wants to remove important protective land designations and buffers around salmon bearing streams to open up more land for harvesting. This, they claim, is necessary to fulfill the billion board foot “promise.” They have some powerful friends in Washington D.C. too. In upcoming Northwest Forest Plan revisions, the conversation is already being framed by decision-makers that weakening the Plan is a necessity. That’s wrong. The Plan is just barely enough. The northern spotted owl continues to decline. Murrelets are nearly extirpated from Washington State. Instead of gutting the Northwest Forest Plan, the conversation must turn to what more must we do to ensure to protect our public lands. EPIC has joined forces with conservation groups across the West Coast to fight off Big Timber and their allies in the upcoming revisions.