Citizens stand up to Bush in defense of ancient forests

By Paul Koberstein

History is certain to judge the Bush years as a disaster for the nation's — and the planet's — environment. But as his second term winds down, it's worth noting that ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest are still standing, despite the administration's vigorous efforts to help timber companies cut them down, and thanks to countless citizens who stood in the way.

The administration's approach to nature has been driven by two myths: what's good for industry is good for the environment, and the extent of our resources is without limit. But there is much work to do. For the last eight years, Bush has been at war with the planet's complex and fragile life-sustaining systems in his rush to aid industry.

Aside from his last-gasp attempt to gut the house on his way out (see story page 4), Bush has lost his war on the environment. Witness the fact that the ancient forests are still standing, despite almost eight years of  concerted efforts to liquidate them. A broad campaign to suppress science and intimidate scientists has been exposed, and administration officials have been forced to reverse several unlawful decisions. Many more decisions are under investigation by Congress, the courts and independent government watchdogs. The clock will soon run out, leaving behind a mangled mess that the next president should be able to fix (see page 18).

However, if the next president wants to avoid lasting damage, he must get on this right way, and he must do more than just dispel myths. He must also weed out Bush’s true believers from the bureaucracy, and identify language now embedded in rules and regulations that would undermine conservation — and delete it.

The next president must also contemplate how to restore wildlife and ecosystems damaged by Bush's assault and neglect, and avoid the catastrophic climate disruptions that he failed to address.

Bush was stopped by combatants whom the administration considered to be enemies. Citizens, communities, conservationists and scientists all helped to  deliver a final, crushing blow.

They ended this onslaught on the hallowed ground of the Pacific Northwest's ancient forests where he could not produce on a promise to industry: provide old-growth timber without violating the law and angering  the public, Congress and the courts.

Many consider a 2003 backroom deal with the timber industry to have been a potential turning point. In that agreement, Bush officials implicitly promised to ignore laws protecting old growth forest habitats and hand over vast amounts of forests for clearcutting.

Specifically, the industry, represented by the American Forest Resources Council, persuaded Bush officials to disavow the scientific fact that cutting down old growth forests would cause the threatened northern spotted owl and possibly other species to eventually die off. With protection for these species eliminated, the AFRC believed—and the administration agreed—that ravishing levels of logging not seen since the 1980s could resume. The entire conservation community vowed that this scheme would never materialize.

It didn’t. The companies did not get their timber, the laws remain in force, and the northern spotted owl won a stunning reprieve.

“It could have been far worse,” says Regna Merritt, executive director of Oregon Wild, a group that over the years has made its mark as a watchdog for old growth forests on federal lands. Oregon Wild, along with many other groups such as the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the American Lands Alliance and the Sierra Club — and their lawyers from Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene — count numerous legal victories over Bush's forest policies to their credit.

Of  course, timber was just one of many publicly owned commodities that Bush sought to give away to corporations, his officials expressing a willingness to point a gun to the head of protected species if need be. From the beginning of his administration, Bush has sought to expand oil and gas drilling in sensitive environments that are home to polar bears, sage grouse, caribou and other species of critical concern.

Drilling has scarred the Rocky Mountains with more than 77,000 new oil and gas wells, under the Department of the Interior's short-cut environmental reviews, with more drilling on the way. The administration is pushing to open new areas to exploit off the coasts and in the Arctic, making the extremely dubious claim that it would reduce the cost of gasoline. The administration barely acknowledged ideas to conserve oil and reduce consumption.

Bush officials have tried to operate as covertly as possible as they tried to manipulate environmental laws without attracting attention. They quietly subverted scientists and their inconvenient research findings. They have gagged scientists and lied about the facts. When science conflicted with politics, science lost.

Testimony before congressional committees exposed Bush's widespread effort to muzzle scientists. Now an administration that had big plans is in full retreat, with environmental groups unraveling the embarrassed administration's unlawful schemes.

The most notorious “meddler” among top Bush officials was Julie MacDonald, a non-scientist (she has a degree in engineering) who as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior for fish, wildlife and parks was accused by her underlings of waging a “reign of terror” against scientists with whom she disagreed. An internal investigation alleged that MacDonald interfered with Fish and Wildlife Service decisions by “intimidating” and bullying scientists unless and until they produced findings that were politically acceptable to her.

MacDonald resigned her post under pressure on May 1, 2007, but she was not acting alone. Political appointees throughout the upper reaches of Interior and other agencies were caught tampering with scientific findings, just as she did.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says that eight species have been afflicted by MacDonald's bad science.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says scientific evaluations of some 80 species, including the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, sage grouse and salmon, have been marred by political meddling. The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the government for faulty decisions afflicting 55 species.

Now top Bush officials are insisting that they have reformed and that the science is no longer defective.

“Science is the foundation of all of our conservation efforts,” Lynn Scarlett, the deputy Interior Secretary, told a congressional committee chaired by Rep. Nick Rahall III in May 2007. “The (Fish and Wildlife) Service employs rigorous procedures to ensure that the best available science supports (endangered species) determinations. Under no circumstance do we promote, tolerate, or endorse suppression of scientific information.”

In July 2007, Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the same committee, “I would like to emphasize my personal commitment to ensuring the scientific rigor, validity, and integrity of the Service's decisions under the ESA.”

However, as Dr. Dominick DellaSala, a biologist who directs the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland, Ore., told Rahall's committee, Scarlett, MacDonald and Hall, along with several others, “interfered” and “tampered” with a draft recovery plan for the spotted owl, which could have led to “irretrievable irremediable losses of old growth forests.”

In May 2008, Rahall, a Democrat from West Virginia, said that despite Scarlett’s lofty speech, nothing has changed. “Instead of cleaning up the mess,” he charged, “the Fish and Wildlife Service has swept it under the rug.”

He said that Bush appointees who influenced endangered species decisions “are still roaming the halls of the Interior Department, unchecked. As a result, we can have no confidence that political tinkering with the (endangered species) program is being addressed any better now than it was under MacDonald's reign.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service, meanwhile, has admitted the error of some of its ways and has decided to redo the flawed owl plan, wasting almost an entire year's worth of work and a lot of people’s time and money.

“At this point, the best hope for endangered species may simply be to cling to life until after January when this President and his cronies, at long last, hit the unemployment line,” Rahall said.

Cutting a deal with big timber

For the timber industry, the days of wine and roses ended in the 1980s, when friendly members of Congress like Sen. Mark Hatfield and Rep. Les AuCoin left office, after years of lobbying for votes to liquidate the Northwest’s last remnants of old growth.

The 1980s saw huge amounts of Northwest old-growth timber going to the chainsaws, as much as 5.5 billion board feet per year. Kathie Durbin reported in The Oregonian in 1990 that Hatfield and AuCoin wrote legislation setting harvest levels so high that the Forest Service had trouble finding enough trees to meet the targets. Max Peterson, a Forest Service chief, was fired in 1986 because federal harvests weren’t big enough. AuCoin, an Oregon Democrat implausibly denied any role in the firing, allowing however that he was frustrated by the chief's “reluctance to implement the will of Congress,” as Durbin reported.

Hatfield, an Oregon Republican, and AuCoin were calling for harvests that clearly were not sustainable, and eventually it became apparent to biologists that the spotted owl’s extinction was inevitable unless the harvests slowed down.

Then, in April 1990, the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the ESA.

Acting immediately, the late federal Judge William Dwyer in Seattle shut down the timber sale program until the government could figure out how to save the owl. Later rulings were designed to assure the viability of all native vertebrates that depend on old-growth habitat, and Judge Dwyer admonished the government to “take an ecosystem approach.” Meanwhile, mechanization of logging mills was already causing the loss of logging jobs. Thousands of timber workers lost their jobs while the industry rebounded with retooled mills that were able to process smaller, younger logs.

“The smarter timber companies are rejecting the pipedream that the Bush administration will restore the good old days,” says Randi Spivak, executive director of the environmental group American Lands Alliance.  “These progressive companies see the writing on the wall and are retooling to handle small diameter material that is removed for legitimate forest restoration purposes.”

The industry argued that the owl as a species wasn’t in any danger, didn't need saving, and that the old growth really wasn't crucial to its survival. The courts did not agree, and gridlock ensued.

In 1993, President Clinton brought leaders on all sides of the issue together for a “forest summit” in Portland to find a way out of the standoff.

A year later, Clinton released his landmark Northwest Forest Plan, governing 24 million acres in 19 National Forests and seven U.S. Bureau of Land Management districts in Western Washington, Western Oregon and Northern California.

The new forest plan allowed the timber industry to resume clearcutting, albeit at a much slower and more sustainable rate designed to avoid any further damage to the owl and the other animals in the forest. A fatal flaw in the Clinton plan is that it failed to protect some 1 million acres of mature and old-growth forests vulnerable to continued logging.

The timber industry, which during the 1980s had been getting almost all that it wanted, has never been happy with the deal. It said the Clinton plan promised, but never delivered, 1.1 billion board feet of timber yearly, a highly disputed interpretation of the plan. In the late '90s, the industry filed four lawsuits challenging the government's refusal to provide the amount of timber it claimed it deserved.

In fact, the Clinton plan never promised to deliver 1.1 billion board feet or any other amount. It only said that 1.1 billion board feet was its “best assessment.” In the exact words of the plan, 1.1 billion board feet represents “neither minimum levels that must be met nor maximum levels that cannot be exceeded. They are rough approximations…”

After Bush took office, the industry saw an opportunity to press for favorable resolutions to its four lawsuits. Documents obtained by Earthjustice via the Freedom of Information Act revealed the timber industry's legal strategy to force the issue. After all, federal agencies were then populated by a number of timber friendly officials who hated the Clinton forest plan and were eager to gut it.

One of them was Mark Rey, a former industry lobbyist, who served as the assistant secretary of Agriculture with responsibility to oversee the Forest Service. If anybody could lead the Forest Service back to the days of Hatfield and AuCoin, it was Rey.

The American Forest Resources Council, a Portland-based group representing more than 100 timber companies, filed two lawsuits; others were filed by the Western Council of Industrial Workers and an association of western Oregon counties. They have long favored collecting timber revenues as a way to pay for public services (in recent years, as revenues have sagged, they have slashed services rather than increase their relatively low tax rates).

The plaintiffs said they would settle their cases if the Bush administration provided the “promised” 1.1 billion board feet — even if it had to disregard a number of environmental regulations the industry didn’t like. The industry demanded the weakening of rules to conserve aquatic species such as salmon, and the elimination of a program to survey forests for a diverse array of species, and protect them. To the industry's consternation, federal courts rejected the administration's efforts to evade these responsibilities.

Significantly, it asked the administration to see if it could remove the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, a threatened species, from the endangered species list. The industry specified that the administration should design an approach to conserving owls that wouldn’t interfere with timber harvests.

To satisfy the timber industry's desire to increase timber production within the owl's habitat, the government had to do far more than merely fire a Forest Service chief, which had been sufficient two decades before. It had to fabricate science.

The industry laid out this strategy in a letter to the administration in 2002: “The proposed settlement will help produce the required volume of the Northwest Forest Plan timber sales, but will not succeed completely unless the Bush administration also addresses current administrative impediments including tangled consultation procedures and redundant environmental reviews.”

In other words, the industry was telling the administration “break the law, and adulterate science, if you have to, but give us our timber.” The administration was quite happy, if not ecstatic, for a chance to oblige.

“The Bush Administration has not only agreed to all of industry's demands, it has also proceeded in precisely the way advocated by the industry,” said Earthjustice lawyer Patti Goldman.

Goldman said the administration agreed to make “sweeping changes in forest management in secret settlements of friendly industry lawsuits.” It also made changes in way it managed rivers and streams “in order to undo court rulings that require greater protection.”

The industry also persuaded Bush to appoint Mark Rutzick, the lead attorney for the timber industry in the litigation and settlement negotiations, as a senior adviser to the general counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with responsibility for Pacific salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act. Goldman said Rutzick was to eliminate the requirement that timber sales must protect salmon habitat, and to change Endangered Species Act consultations to make it easier for logging near salmon-bearing streams to occur.

“In short, the timber industry has directed a major rewrite of the rules and has the people in place to continue down its path,” Goldman said.

Politicians get it wrong

“They are not up against the spotted owl. They are up against the Pacific Ocean,” John Osborn, the Spokane environmentalist, once said about the timber industry.

Old growth forests are defined as stands composed of a mixture of different sizes, species and ages of trees, scientists say, characteristics that take centuries to develop. Some trees in these stands can be dead snags, while others seemingly touch the sky with their towering canopies. The industry's seeks to cut down those forests and replace them with profitable tree farms that can be nearly barren of wildlife diversity.

Cutting down ancient forests would certainly consign the owl to extinction, owl biologists say. The owl's recovery depends on whether the government can protect these forests on federal land. Old growth has almost disappeared from state and privately owned lands. In Oregon, these forests are particularly vulnerable because they are regulated under Oregon’s forest practices code, which is the weakest in the region, as Cascadia Times reported in 2005.

Moreover, the destructive nature of clearcutting old-growth forests poses threats far greater than those felt by the owl. Clearcutting also imperils the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized bird that nests exclusively in ancient trees within 50 miles of the ocean. Clearcutting on the predominantly steep slopes in Northwest forests can also destroy salmon, trout and other aquatic life by burying their habitat in silt. Another purpose of the Northwest Forest Plan was to avoid the need to list any of the 1,100 species that depend on mature or old-growth forests in the Northwest.

In 1990, when the owl joined the endangered species list, James Monteith, then executive director of the organization now known as Oregon Wild, said, “it's unfortunate that we're in a position where animals can go extinct on public land. We would hope that industry would accept the scientists' conclusions and stop ducking the truth.”

But timber industry spokesman Ralph Saperstein said at the time that scientists were finding increasing numbers of owls on younger stands in Northern California, and speculated that maybe owls could adapt to young forests throughout the Northwest, thereby avoiding both extinction and job losses. The industry vowed to fight logging restrictions imposed to protect the owl. Environmentalists like Monteith said they would go to court to ensure that necessary restrictions were enforced.

Clinton's 1994 forest plan created millions of acres of reserves where the owl was protected from effects of chainsaws. The industry, meanwhile, stuck to Saperstein's discredited theory, even though not a single scientific study confirmed his claim that owls north of the California redwoods can survive in younger forests. Instead, studies have confirmed just the opposite: owls will die off without the old forests.

After Bush came into office in 2001, the industry pressed the Saperstein theory with fresh administration officials who were quite willing to believe it. The industry talked Bush officials into supporting increased timber production in Northwest forests by decreasing the amount of acreage protected for the owl, murrelet, salmon and other species.

The timber industry, in its 2002 proposed settlement, blatantly urged the government to embrace a lie as though it were an indisputable fact: “The scientific community has significantly changed its assessment of the biological requirements of the northern spotted owl,” the industry said in a memo to the administration, obtained by Earthjustice. “Fragmented habitat is now viewed as preferable to large blocks of old growth.”

Scientists who are expert on the spotted owl’s needs say neither of these claims is true.

The memo noted that any reduction in northern spotted owl habitat “increases the timber production potential of the Northwest Forest Plan.” It argued for a re-examination of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet (another old-growth reliant threatened species). both of which it claimed are “essential to achieving the 1.1 billion board feet timber sale goal.”

The fact that Bush officials were willing to swallow the industry’s lie about the owl became apparent to everyone on April 26, 2007, when the Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled a deeply flawed draft “owl recovery plan” that declared that habitat protection was no longer fundamental to owl conservation.

Just as the timber industry wanted. Just as the administration promised back in 2003.

Documents show that in May 2003, shortly after the administration agreed to meet the timber industry's demands, Julie MacDonald took charge of the administration's effort to gut protection for the owl and the murrelet.

Her notes indicate the Interior Department would appoint an Owl Recovery Team to complete a draft recovery plan in 2006 and a final plan in 2007.

But the recovery team did not include any of the leading, well-published owl scientists, said DellaSala, a member of the team. “It was stacked against the owl from the get-go.”

Two team members, DellaSala and Tim Cullinan of Audubon Washington, objected when the team submitted its plan in September 2006. Rather than make a futile effort to persuade industry and agency representatives to join them in rejecting the plan, they felt that its shortcomings would be exposed during peer review. “In fact, the draft got slammed in peer review,” DellaSala said.

“Neither Tim nor I wanted our names on the document as scientists, and we even asked to have us removed from the acknowledgments as team members, it was so bad,” he said.

In October 2006 the plan went before a “Washington Oversight Committee,” comprised of 12 top agency officials who developed a major revision of the document (see the full list of these 12 officials on the opposite page). These Bush appointees in the departments of Interior and Agriculture, including Rey, Scarlett and MacDonald, jettisoned the recovery team's version in favor of a revision backed by timber companies, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

In the revised draft, the Washington Oversight Committee  misrepresented two studies that showed the owl can survive in certain young, cutover forests the redwood region of Northern Califonia. It made these misrepresentations at the encouragment of a timber industry representative on the recovery team, and ignored warnings from the authors of these studies that they must not extrapolate their findings to other parts of the region.

The author of one study cited by the new draft owl plan, Dr. Alan Franklin, claimed the oversight team had “misinterpreted” his data as well as his modeling approach. Franklin is a research biologist with the National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado.

The author of the other study, Dr. Gail Olson, also claimed that the government misinterpreted her spotted owl studies. In a letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service she said, “There are many places in the plan where my research results are not interpreted correctly and used in ways that I not only did not intend for them to be used, but specifically warned against in my published paper.

“I strongly believe this to be at least a misinterpretation of my research results and at worst deliberate misuse,” she said in a letter to U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Seattle.

Olson, a research scientist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said she was “never asked about the research that was cited extensively in the Plan nor was I requested to provide feedback on the use of that research within the Plan.”

The Washington Oversight Committee proposed to allow logging in 823,000 acres that otherwise would be set aside for the owl, and eventually in another 1.6 million acres.

DellaSala said that during a recovery team meeting in Portland on February 7, 2007,  Renne Lohoefener,  the Pacific regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, “indicated that the recovery team was ‘responding to outside influences,' yet he gave no details on who these influences were. Upon further questioning from the recovery team, he indicated that the outside influences were representatives from the timber industry.”

 “What was supposed to be a science-based plan was derailed by a pattern of political interference,” said DellaSala. “The process by which the draft recovery plan was handled by FWS has eroded the public's confidence in the ability of the agency to meets its obligation to protect the nation's threatened and endangered wildlife.”

DellaSala obtained government memos  that he says indicate the Fish and Wildlife Service had been pressured by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to minimize protections for the owl.

“They worked to make sure that habitat protection provisions were kept below bare minimums needed to ensure owl survival,” DellaSala said.

However, the Forest Service has denied the allegation. “I disagree with your general assertion that the Forest Service and BLM exceeded an appropriate role in the development of the recovery plan,” Calvin Joyner, deputy regional forester, said in a letter last year to DellaSala.

Scientists and conservationists led protests against the plan.

“There is no scientific basis …to conclude that old-growth forests are no longer essential to the owl's survival,” according to a February 2008 statement signed by more than 100 concerned scientists.”

The scientists said increased threats from barred owls, an invasive species, and climate change, justified the protection of “more habitat — not less,” for the owl. At public hearings along the West Coast members of the public overwhelmingly voiced similar concerns.

Scott Greacen, executive director of the Environmental Policy Information Center in Northern California, said at a Redding, Calif., hearing that the plan is “the product of a corrupt process and a corrupt administration which pursues its political ends with no regard for either the science or the expressed will of the American people.”

Diane Beck, of the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club, said “this so-called plan appears to weaken protection for the northern spotted owl while pretending the opposite.” She asked the administration to redo the plan “and involve good academic and government biologists and keep special interests out of it.  Biology and the endangered species should drive northern spotted owl policy rather than special interests dragging the policy and the science around by the neck.”

Lisa  Paribello of Audubon Washington said in Lacey, Wash., “Today we have before us a recovery plan that ignores sound science and substitutes political manipulation, that minimizes the most urgent threats facing the owl in favor of scapegoats. If adopted this plan would jeopardize not only the spotted owl but the old-growth ecosystem on which they depend, and with them a host other species, clean water and the natural legacy for future generations.”

Marianne Nelson, speaking in Portland, said, “Unfortunately, the approach of the recovery plan is similar to the U.S. Government's previous stance on global warming. It denied all the science, looking only at political objectives, until so many scientists spoke out the science could no longer be denied. Science should not be manipulated for political objectives.”

In Roseburg, Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild said, “I wish the Washington oversight committee was here listening. That's the committee that Lynn Scarlett is chairperson of, but she can't even remember who the other persons on the committee are.  They seem to have a strong influence over what's going on, but we don't even know who they are or how to reach them and influence them, and that's pretty frustrating for the public. They'd get quite an earful if they were here.”

In late 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to revise the plan once more, and hired the Portland-based Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, to do the work. The SEI review was also highly critical. saying, “Acknowledging that the pace of timber harvest in Northern Spotted Owl habitat on federal land has greatly declined 1990-2007, we view the continued conservation of (old growth) forest to be paramount for Northern Spotted Owl recovery. We concur that increasing the harvest of occupied habitat would harm the species at a time when it appears to be in accelerated decline.

Final owl plan still flawed

In May 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service released a new owl recovery plan that made no mention of the Washington Oversight Committee or its flawed work.

The Fish and Wildlife Service did not call for peer reviews of the final plan, but several experts stepped forward with their opinions. Although an improvement over the draft plan, a consensus of experts gives it a failing grade.

It's still not adequate, but it represents a “major improvement” over the work of the oversight committee, says Dr. Jerry F. Franklin, Professor of Ecosystem Analysis in the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.

In testimony last May before the Rahall committee, he said the draft plan “failed all scientific tests.”

“It is important that Congress recognize that these improvements are largely a consequence of the oversight provided by extensive public involvement, including comprehensive and independent scientific review during the development of the recovery plan.”

Nevertheless, Franklin says the number of conservation areas established for the owl — 133 — is not adequate, and is based on an “old” strategy developed in 1989 and 1990 that is now obsolete.

“I see no scientific reason why the (Fish and Wildlife Service) would have based their approach on this old strategy. The Northwest Forest Plan provided for a much more extensive system of Late Successional Reserves, a system of reserves superior to (the final owl plan).”

The Wildlife Society, a scientific organization which peer-reviewed the draft plan, said no other raptor has been studied as extensively as the northern spotted owl. The final plan, it said in a review published July 31, “does not adequately avail itself of the depth and breadth of this information, resulting in a seriously flawed plan for recovery. The 2008 Plan will not lead to recovery of this species. Indeed, the plan would reverse much of the progress made over the past 20 years to protect this species and the habitat upon which it depends.”

The group said the owl's recovery plan should strengthen the provisions of Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan. Instead, the new plan illogically “proposes significant reduction in suitable habitat available to the owl.”

In a joint review published in late June, the Society of Conservation Biology and the American Ornithologists' Union said the final plan “is still inadequate as a conservation strategy.” It said the plan significantly reduces the amount of habitat protected for the owl.

“Given that the northern spotted owl has been experiencing about a 4 percent annual rate of population decline for the last 15 years, any reductions from current levels of habitat protection cannot be justified. In contrast, a sufficient conservation strategy would continue to protect all lands currently designated for spotted owl recovery under the (Northwest Forest Plan) and consider expansion in the size or number of habitat reserves.”

The latest demography data shows that populations of northern spotted owls in Washington continued to decline through 2007, and those in Oregon are declining at a greater rate than in 2003.

The next demographic study will be conducted after the 2008 field season in January 2009, and it is likely that the news will be even grimmer than it was after the 2003 analysis, said DellaSala.  Also, the latest genetic studies by Dr. Susan Haig,  of the USGS, shows reduced genetic viability in owl populations due to inbreeding.

“This happens when populations are crashing and not very well connected,” DellaSala said. “All of this goes against the Fish and Wildlife Service plan to reduce habitat. As I’ve said before, the FWS is pulling the habitat rug out from under the owl at a time when population declines are accelerating.”

The BLM bakes a whopper

To find the biggest and oldest trees in Oregon, you must travel to the remote Crabtree Valley located high in the Cascade Mountains of west-central Oregon. To get there, you follow U.S. 20 east of Albany, turn off just beyond the small town of Sweet Home onto backroads that lead past Foster and Green Peter Reservoirs and into the foothills of stately Mount Jefferson.

You can drive up to the trailhead leading to the Crabtree Valley if the snows have melted, which may not occur before July. Upon entering the Crabtree Valley you will find a hiking trail down to a picturesque lake bordered by trees that took root more than 1,000 years ago.

There you will find towering old-growth forests that the timber industry and its friends in the Bush Administration want to clearcut. This fate has been proposed by the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management.

Environmentalists have saved this extraordinary forest once, and they say they now must save it again.

Andy Kerr, a conservation consultant for environmental groups, was working for Oregon Wild in the early 1980s when Crabtree Valleywas owned by the timber company Willamette Industries. One day, he and another Oregon Wild activist, Cameron LaFollette, met with the company's CEO, Bill Swindell Jr. in his office on the top floor of the First Interstate Tower in downtown Portland.

“Cameron and I begged him to do a land exchange with BLM,” said Kerr, now CEO of the Larch Company, an environmental consulting firm based in Ashland. “He told of cruising it in his younger days as forester, He kept saying that he didn't think the forest was special.”

At the time, Kerr noted that, “Old growth hadn't taken off as an issue yet. Crabtree helped launch the issue.”

“I distinctly recall seeing the light bulb go off over (Swindell’s) head when he finally processed what I was saying. He then wanted a land exchange.”

Willamette Industry traded the Crabtree Valley for other timberland owned by the BLM, and the valley was saved — or so people thought.

In the summer of 2007, the BLM announced that it was proposing a plan to clearcut almost all of its old growth forests in Western Oregon over the next several decades. The Crabtree Valley and forest lands surrounding it were put on the chopping block. The Bush administration had agreed to do this in its 2003 settlement agreement with the timber industry.

The BLM is calling its proposal the “Western Oregon Plan Revision,” or WOPR. Critics deride it as “The Whopper.”

The industry said a 1937 law required the BLM to cut down the forests, and that Clinton's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan illegally set aside blocks of forest for conservation of owls and other species. The industry said Bush officials must eliminate old-growth reserves and set-asides along streams, which had been protected by the Clinton plan. These changes would be “a potent tool for achieving” the industry’s goal of cutting the 1.1 billion board feet of timber from Northwest forests each year.

As part of the “Whopper,” the BLM agreed to drop an aquatic conservation strategy on its lands. The Environmental Protection Agency considers this strategy crucial in meeting Clean Water Act standards. There are more than 900 stream segments in the BLM's planning area that violate those standards for silt and high temperatures, impairing water for drinking, fish and wildlife.

The BLM lands came under government control in 1937, when the Oregon and California Lands Act (O&C Act) confiscated them from a railroad company. In the lands act, Congress sought to put an end to the wasteful and destructive logging practices common in those days. Companies were clearcutting large areas for short-term gains without safeguarding the forests and other resources. The lands act instituted a conservation ethic, marking the first federal statute to impose sustainability constraints on timber cutting.

But the timber industry chooses not to see it that way, claiming instead that the law gave a timber-only mandate.

Documents released to Earthjustice under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit reveal that the Bush administration agreed to revert to a pre-Clinton policy that BLM lands must be managed under laws in effect decades ago, before for example the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The industry says they should be managed only for timber production. It even said that reserves for species and ecosystem protection on those lands are illegal.

According to analysis by Oregon Wild, the BLM plan calls for:

n1,010 miles of new road construction in the first decade (610 miles of permanent roads removing 3,250 acres of land from permanent forest production);

--Old growth reserves 48 percent smaller than provided by the Northwest Forest Plan;

--No protection of spotted owl nests in the path of logging;

--Clearcutting of old growth with no retention of green trees or large snags, and limited retention of down wood;

--Salvage logging in reserves with inadequate retention of snags;

--A 75 percent reduction in the area protected around streams.

"Plans like the ‘whopper’ that drive logging of mature and old growth forests are no little different than the greedy, morally and economically bankrupt mortgage schemes,” said Spivak, of American Lands Alliance.

The governments of the 16 western Oregon counties in which these forests are located contend, through their lawyers, that the Endangered Species Act simply does not apply to the 2.2 million acres of land transferred to the federal government  under the 1937 O&C Act. This highly dubious claim would mean that the Endangered Species Act is valid everywhere in the U-.S., except in parts of 16 of Oregon's 36 counties.

The counties go on to claim that a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling implies that the BLM “may not create reserves … to avoid jeopardizing a listed species.” The industry says that no conservation purpose — not even to protect salmon by barring clearcutting on landslide-prone soils — can conflict with the BLM's duty to allow timber production.

But Federal Judge William Dwyer, ruling in 1994, had already rejected the industry's contention that the Northwest Forest Plan violated the O&C Act, and that on these lands the ESA is null and void. Dwyer has stated that BLM must fulfill its conservation duties under these and other environmental statutes in managing the O&C lands. Dwyer said that BLM must look not only to annual timber production but also to “protecting watersheds, contributing to economic stability, and providing recreational facilities.”

"One of the ironies is that some rural communities continue to believe the myth that continued logging of older forests will financially rescue their communities, Spivak said. “History has proven just the opposite. The more older forests are logged, the more public controversy, the more damage to vital drinking water supplies, failed fisheries, and erosion and flooding caused by an overbuilt, eroding road system. The Bush Administration and the timber industry have no interest in the health of rural communities.”

If the BLM and the industry get their way, environmentalists say the future of the northern spotted owl would be put in great jeopardy.

“The spotted owl needs the BLM’s forests as critical stepping stones of habitat that connect large blocks of suitable habitat in CoastRange and the Cascades,” says Oregon Wild’s Doug Heiken.

"Congress needs to once and for all protect all mature and old-growth forests,” Spivak said. “There is no scientific or social ambiguity on the need to protect and re-grow these older forests. Laws must be created to eliminate this practice or scarce public resources will continue to be wasted.”

The BLM in October 2008 revised its plan, proposing to reduce by one-third the amount of logging it intends to allow in ancient forests.  The BLM had hoped to “harmonize” its plan with the flawed draft owl plan offered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, before it revised the draft.

As this was written, the clock was running out on Bush and his war on the environment. The old trees and the spotted owl will live for another day, despite the administration’s and timber industry’s best efforts to liquidate them. In times of government duplicity and corporate greed and fraud, that counts as a major victory.  

 

Paul Koberstein