Andy Kerr

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

The Bottom Line on Option 9

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy and Rick Brown. 1997. "The Bottom Line on Option 9." Wild Earth. Vol. 7, No. 2. Summer. 31-34.

By Andy Kerr and Rick Brown

The battle for the federal forests of the Pacific Northwest has gone on for nearly a century, but of late it has been red hot. Since the first court injunction against timber sales in Northern Spotted Owl habitat in 1989 until the retirement of Senator Mark Hatfield and the expiration of the Salvage Rider at the end of 1996, the region has seen unprecedented lawsuits, demonstrations, arrests, media attention, government action, death threats and political action for and against forests.

The purpose of this article is not to tell this story, as others have told parts of it already (start with Kathie Durbin's Tree Huggers: Victory, Defeat & Renewal in the Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign, The Mountaineers, Seattle, 1996), and remaining pieces will be told in time. Rather, we wish to examine the present state of affairs and expectations to finish the epic struggle for the public forests of the western Pacific Northwest (Northern Spotted Owl range, not the drier eastside forests). We answer the questions:

• How much forest has been “saved”?
• Is the President's Northwest Forest Plan (Option 9) good, bad, and/or ugly?
• What's next to finish the job?

How Much Forest Has Been “Saved”?

If one properly defines “saved” as the goal set by former Oregon Natural Resources Council executive director and Western Ancient Forest Campaign founder James Monteith in the mid-1980s as “permanent legislative protection,” then precious little has been “saved.” Scientists estimate that about two-thirds of the pre-settlement forests were “late successional” (which includes forests down to 80 years old), or perhaps 26 million out of 40 million acres of forested land within the range of the Northern Spotted Owl. Optimistic agency inventories suggest that one-third of this--8.5 million acres--remained by the early 1990s, and only 2.4 million was protected in Wilderness and National Parks. Since the oldest and biggest trees were cut first, the widely accepted estimate that no more than 10% of original, true “old growth” forest remains is quite reasonable.

Depending on which definition and which maps of ancient (or old-growth or late-successional) forests are used, estimates vary widely--perhaps from 45% to 75%—as to how much of otherwise unprotected forest is “protected” under Option 9. As the Salvage Rider demonstrated, the administrative protections established in Option 9 can be overridden at Congress's whim. Neither environmentalists nor the timber industry has had the power to get the permanent legislation they wanted out of Congress.

On the plus side, two small, but highly critical Oregon areas have recently received permanent legislative protection. In the closing moments of the 104th Congress, Senator Hatfield, the person most singularly responsible for the destruction of the region's forests, pushed through a bill to permanently protect from logging the City of Portland's Bull Run Watershed (65,000 acres) and Opal Creek (28,000 acres variously designated as Wilderness, Wild and Scenic River, and Scenic Recreation Area). Hatfield acted in an inadequate attempt to mitigate his clearcut legacy. While the timber industry hasn't fulfilled its fantasy of permanently legislating away the protections of the National Forest Management Act and the Endangered Species Act or the processes of the National Environmental Policy Act, it has achieved temporary suspensions of the environmental laws as applied to Pacific Northwest forests in 1989-90 and 1995-96 by attaching provisions to must-pass annual appropriations bills. These “riders” (non-germane amendments) limited citizens' access to the courts to enforce environmental statutes. (Ironically, the provisions that saved Bull Run and Opal Creek were also riders.)

While few forests have been permanently “saved,” the amount being “lost” to logging has declined dramatically. Figure 1 depicts cutting levels from 1980 to 1996. The upward bumps against the overall downward trend are due to the riders.

Figure 1. Timber Sale Levels on Federal Forests — Range of the Northern Spotted Owl (Oregon, Washington, and California).
1980-88: Average sale levels for 1960s and 1970s were very similar.
1989: Fist of several court injunctions takes effect.
1990: Appropriations bill Section 318 "Rider From Hell" forces sales despite injunctions.
1991: Injunctions resume effect, with some carry-over of Sec. 318.
1992-93: Injunctions continue in effect.
1994-94: Option 9 begins to take effect.
1996: Public Law 104 19 "Salvage rider" in effect.

Prior to the first court injunction in 1989, 5 billion board feet (BBF) per year (three square miles of federal forest each week) was being logged. A billion board feet translates to 200,000 log trucks. Before the injunction on the Mount Hood National Forest, for instance, logs came off the Forest at a rate equivalent to a truck-load every six minutes, 24 hours per day, no holidays.

While the President's Northwest Forest Plan (Option 9) made it much more difficult to log the federal forests, the single best indicator both of forest destruction and of environmentalists' success and failure continues to be the amount of timber cut despite environmentalists' best efforts.

Is the President's Northwest Forest Plan Good, Bad, and/or Ugly?

It's political, so it's all of the above. The earlier plans issued by the federal forest agencies were also political, but the President's political needs were different than the agencies'.

The President's plan purports to consider and protect over 1000 species. This is an unprecedented attempt in conservation biology. However, the plan is built around the Northern Spotted Owl and Marbled Murrelet (both protected under the Endangered Species Act) and various stocks of Pacific salmon (several are listed, several others are proposed for listing, under the ESA); other species mostly benefit coincidentally.

Politically, no federal forest plan has done more. The amount of land (in absolute acres and relative fractions) withdrawn from scheduled logging is unprecedented.

Unfortunately, it is not enough ecologically. As politically precedent-setting as it is, the plan tolerates unacceptable levels of risk for species. None of the original eight options would cut an amount of timber considered politically adequate, hence Option 9.

The favored option was developed to cut at least 1.1 BBF of timber annually. To do so, optimistic assumptions about the ecological compatibility of new logging techniques, generally known as “new forestry” (kinder and gentler clearcuts), were made. The plan has both loopholes big enough to drive log trucks through and time-bombs big enough to blow up most—but not quite all—log trucks. The amount of timber that gets through will turn on politics, budgets, enforcement and vigilance.

To keep projected logging levels above 1 BBF, the plan defers many decisions to the future. Depending on the success of environmentalists in monitoring the plan, and forcing its full implementation (all the while seeking to replace it with a stronger, adequate plan), the plan could allow as much as 1.1 BBF to be sold annually, or perhaps as little as 0.1 BBF (the amount which could be cut if all the old growth is saved) or 0.4 BBF (the amount logged during the injunctions protecting Spotted Owl habitat).

To keep cutting levels up, Option 9 calls for logging a substantial portion of the old growth that is left. Judge William Dwyer, who imposed most of the “owl injunctions,” found the plan to be legal, but just barely. To support the high logging levels, the plan calls for unprecedented levels of monitoring, inventory, and mitigation.

Option 9 is as much a bureaucrat's dream as it is a taxpayer's nightmare. Selling far less timber will cost more tax money than previously. In a 1996 report to Congress, the USDA Office of Forestry and Economic Assistance admits: “Although the timber sale rate has been reduced, the amount of staff and financial effort to re-establish the new program is comparable to what was needed to run the full timber program.”

If all the monitoring and mitigation is done as required, it will result in less timber being sold. Even using the bogus accounting methods of the Forest Service, where the liquidation of inventory (big old trees) is posted as profit, federal forests within the range of the Spotted Owl now join the rest of the US National Forests in being money losers.

Budgets are not going up, so it is almost certain the federal forest agencies will fail to do what the plan requires, if for no other reason than a lack of money.

Consider the standpoint of the timber industry. They used to expend X amount of effort (lobbying, schmoozing, threatening, contributing, etc.) for Y amount of timber. They now must expend 10X for possibly 1/10Y. The smart ones are getting out and moving to private lands or non-wood fiber resources.

The hope left to the timber industry is that Option 9, while making it much more difficult to log, depending on the land allocation, still offers the potential. The federal forest agencies prefer the logging option because so much of their budget comes from timber sale receipts. The only people saying they believe the full 1.1 BBF can be produced are administration and agency officials speaking publicly.

Complicating the implementation of Option 9 and environmentalists' attempts to thwart it was the enactment by Congress of the “salvage” logging rider which prohibited citizens from holding lawless federal forest agencies accountable in court. The rider expired in 1996 and is unlikely to be renewed. The main driving force for this and all other logging riders has retired. Senator Hatfield routinely sought to (ab)use his power as chair or ranking minority member of the Appropriations (money talks) Committee to advance the timber industry's agenda. The timber industry still has friends on the Appropriations Committee to do their bidding, but they are less powerful than Hatfield was and less willing to expend political capital for the cause of clearcuts.

What's Next To Finish the Job

Now that the rider has expired and the 105th Congress is seated, environmentalists are back on track.

If the federal forest agencies don't follow the plan, they'll end up in court.

Or, if they ignore new scientific information demonstrating the need to revise the present plan, they'll end up in court.

The owl's populations are still declining (and the rate of decline is increasing) and should be reclassified from “threatened” to “endangered.” The President's plan anticipated, and indeed called for, a continued decline; but the plan assumes that as habitat recovers (cut-over lands become old forests again), the owl will recover with it. To achieve the political necessity of keeping the cut above 1 billion board feet, the agencies propose to drive the owl closer to, but not over, the brink. Environmentalists and scientists do not share the agencies' confidence in their ability to precisely predict where this brink occurs.

More stocks of declining salmon will also be listed, which should require stronger forest protections.

Option 9 was a species conservation plan, not a municipal watershed protection plan. About two-thirds of Pacific Northwesterners get their drinking water from surface sources, primarily federal forests. Option 9 calls for logging in municipal watersheds, yet some municipalities are now calling for an end to logging in their watersheds. One such is Salem, Oregon, whose watershed comprises most of the Detroit Ranger District of the Willamette National Forest. A decade ago, no ranger district anywhere logged more. Oregon US Senator Ron Wyden has called upon the Administration to strengthen the President's Northwest Forest Plan by fully protecting all municipal drinking water supplies from logging and roading. In addition, general water quality concerns may limit logging further, as many of the watersheds have been severely hammered already and are in need of recovery.

The intentional tension between the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires the agencies to tell the truth) and the National Forest Management Act (which requires them to conserve species) will likely continue, as will listings under the Endangered Species Act (which requires them to protect listed species).

Environmentalists should advocate permanent legislative protection in two major forms: municipal drinking water protection and salmonid habitat conservation and restoration. In combination, these measures would protect essentially all the remaining ancient forest. Our ability to achieve such permanent legislative protection has increased, even with the Republican takeover of Congress, because timber levels have already dropped due to administrative and judicial actions. Legislative action would simply make it permanent. Legislating a fait accompli is always easier than legislating change, especially since Hatfield no longer wields a chainsaw in Congress.

In addition to seeking permanent legislative protection for forests, environmentalists must seek new ways to fund the federal forest agencies. The present system of funding much of their budgets through timber sale receipts leads the agencies to advocate timber sales to save the salmon, save the watershed, save the forest, save the campground, or save the whatever, but in reality to save the bureaucracy.

For various administrative, economic, and social reasons, federal forest cutting levels in the western Pacific Northwest are moving toward statistically (and economically, but not ecologically) insignificant amounts, if not zero. The challenge to environmentalists is to see that this occurs before the last of the big trees are logged.

Andy Kerr is retired after 20 years with the Oregon Natural Resources Council. Rick Brown is a resource specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.