Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Changes on the Siuslaw

Sugguested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2001. Changes on the Siuslaw. Forest Magazine. March/April. 46. 

By Andy Kerr

"Look at all that cormorant crap," U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Furnish said as our official van crossed the U.S. 101 bridge over Oregon's Umpqua River. Cormorants were packed densely into the few remaining roosting trees, and the Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir were flocked white with their droppings.

Here I was in the forest where my professional conservation career started a quarter-century ago. I was working as an activist in the Siuslaw National Forest, fighting the Forest Service and desperately trying to throw sand in the gears of this great timber machine. No national forest in the system cut more board feet per acre; at the peak, a truckload of virgin forest left the Siuslaw every six minutes.

By 1999, reform had swept the Forest Service, and hardly any timber—none of any significant diameter—was coming off the Siuslaw. A revolution had occurred at the top of the agency, thanks to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Revolution had also welled up from below, thanks to so many clear-cuts.

The excitement in Furnish's voice on this Labor Day weekend tour reflected these changes. Here was a deputy chief and former supervisor of the 630,000-acre Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon's Coast Range marveling at big trees—and not for their lumber.

When I was a budding activist in 1973, the Siuslaw cut was 420 million board feet. The Siuslaw supervisor was F. Dale Robertson, a wunderkind who later became the youngest chief of the Forest Service. The top Siuslaw job was a plum position: big timber volume equaled big staff and budget. Robertson will be remembered as the Chief who didn't make the change from the old Forest Service.

Around 1980, I'd been invited to address Forest Service research scientists meeting at the edge of the Siuslaw National Forest on the Oregon coast. I ended up in a bar with two scientists. A couple of drinks down, one forest ecologist pessimistically complained that nothing much would ever change, that the Forest Service would log it all. The wildlife biologist finally boomed out, "Oh, Jerry, things are going to change!"

"How?" pleaded Jerry Franklin, who as already the guru for old-growth Douglas-fir forests.

"Because sonsabitches like this are going to sue the bastards," said Jack Ward Thomas, as his big hand slapped my shoulder, knocking me askew. The Siuslaw was a breeding ground for what Thomas called "combat biology." His approach worked, and Thomas was later appointed the first chief of the Forest Service who didn't have sawdust flowing through his veins.

In 1978, a law student named Mike Axline, working for what became the Oregon Natural Resources Council, filed the first administrative challenge of a federal timber sale that raised the spotted owl issue. This Siuslaw timber sale challenge was the beginning of a parade of successful appeals and litigation that virtually halted old-growth logging throughout the range of the species. Axline is still leading the charge with the Western Environmental Law Center.

The first spotted owl plan called for 300 acres of old-growth forest being left around 400 spotted owl nests scattered across western Oregon and Washington. The Forest Service agreed to take responsibility for 300 pairs, and the Bureau of Land Management took eighty. State and private landowners would be responsible for the remaining twenty pairs.

Trying to determine if any science supported the plan, I asked a Siuslaw National Forest wildlife biologist how 300 acres of old-growth were allocated to each pair. "It was what we thought we could get past the timber boys," he confessed. Later, scientific studies placed the habitat needs per nesting pair at 2,000 to 4,500 acres and a viable population at several thousand nesting pairs.

No private or state landowner would do even a token amount for the owl. The result was that for the unclaimed twenty pairs, the plan fell apart, leading to litigation under the Endangered Species Act. Today public forest debates are in millions, not thousands, of acres.

As the spotted owl rose in political prominence, the issue had to diversity. Salmon were preferred as the next species of opportunity, but the science hadn't quite developed. A small group of us visited David Marshall, who had recently retired as the endangered species head for the Pacific Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We needed to petition for another endangered species to move the sole burden from the spotted owl and asked him which species would work. Marshall said, "Marbled murrelet."

"Is that a bird?" I asked.

Kim Nelson, an Oregon State University student, heard a birdcall on Mary's Peak, the tallest mountain in Oregon's Coast Range, in 1985 that puzzled her. It sounded like a marbled murrelet, a seabird known to hang out just beyond the coastal breakers, but she was at least thirty miles from the ocean. The calls Nelson heard were an early clue to the nesting habits of the bird, and the discovery that the marbled murrelet nests in old-growth trees up to fifty miles inland came soon after. Nelson has since become the premier marbled murrelet expert and the species has joined the northern spotted owl and coastal runs of salmon on the endangered species list. With these charismatic species coexisting in Oregon's Coast Range, the timber cut on the Siuslaw fell dramatically. Since 1994, less than 10 million board feet have been sold each year, and nothing but small second-growth timber is coming out.

One of the tour objectives this Labor Day weekend was to examine road rehabilitation on the Siuslaw. At its peak, the Siuslaw's road system was 2,500 miles. Since the Northwest Forest Plan, 700 miles have been rehabilitated. Water bars drain uphill ditches to the downhill side of the road and are bladed every few hundred feet to make the road hydrologically invisible to the watershed.

If any large tree falls across the road today on the Siuslaw, it's no longer bucked and sold; it's helicoptered out and anchored in a stream to help fish. The large logs create the gravel bars necessary for spawning salmon and the pools needed during their rearing periods.

As we walked along Knowles Creek, seeing how many hand-placed and mechanically anchored large logs were doing, the contrast between the parts of the creek with and without large logs was striking. Furnish was ecstatic that the fish numbers were up. My measure of the man was changing rapidly. Here was a Forest Service guy who wasn't just talking green, but one who was also walking green. He had eliminated commercial timber as a purpose of the Siuslaw National Forest.

For many decades, the national forests were managed by bureaucrats maximizing budgets by maximizing timber. Today the Forest Service is struggling for a new purpose, and it's being pulled in two directions: industrial-style recreation and active ecological restoration. Realistically, the conservation community is not the likely successor to big timber in serving as the Forest Service's primary constituency and lobbying force in Congress.

Under George W. Bush, we shall see just how deep and permanent the greening of the Forest Service is. My fear is that the revolution is incomplete. Conservationists are mopping up the pockets of resistance to logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. It was going well at the bottom and at the top, but in the middle, the unrepentant timber beasts have holed up in the regional offices, waiting for their day of liberation when they can get back to work.

From lawsuits to political mandates, a twenty-five-year battle, the Siuslaw National Forest has changed for the better, but Furnish likely won't stay to see them through. He said he didn't want to be chief and would be retiring about the same time as Clinton. I think he knew his task was to force serious change and that he'd pay the price for being a reformer.

Andy Kerr lives in Oregon's Rogue Valley. He worked for twenty years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, fighting to save Northwest forests.