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Northern spotted owl
Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 16, 2009

Changing Forest Policies Proved Difficult For Bush Administration
By Rob Manning

Conservationists in Oregon worried eight years ago that President George W. Bush’s election would spell disaster - especially when it came to logging.

Activists would learn that most of the Bush Administration attempts to change forest policy would avoid Congress and instead use lawsuit threats from the timber industry to change administrative rules. Rob Manning reports.

Shortly after President Bush took office, environmental groups began hearing rumors that timber companies were holding quiet talks with top administration officials about how to increase logging.

Earthjustice attorney, Kristin Boyles, did what lawyers do -- she used the Freedom of Information Act to get documents from those meetings. And she was stunned at a five-point strategy memo she got back.

Kristin Boyles: “It’s a laundry list of what the agencies can and should do. It’s a detailed road map, and what we’ve seen is that the administration marched right down this road.”

But actually changing policy didn't turn out to be as easy as reading a road map and driving a logging truck wherever it led.

The first bullet point in the Bush administration memo was an attempt to amend Clinton era rules on logging near rivers and streams. Kristin Boyles’ firm, Earthjustice, sued and won.

Kristin Boyles: “A federal court struck it down for pretty blatant violations of not following the best science.”

So the Bush Administration gave up on the stream rules. And officials went after rule number two: the Northwest Forest Plan's “survey and manage” requirement.

Tom Partin is with the industry group, American Forest Resource Council.

Tom Partin: “Our focus was to say ‘hey, we don’t need survey and manage - let’s take that off the docket.’ If it looks like it might be habitat for these critters, we could do that, but if it doesn’t appear to be habitat, then there isn’t any need for survey-and-manage.”

But again, environmentalists sued and a federal judge rejected the change that the timber industry wanted.

Strategies number three and four were to weaken rules protecting two bird species that live in old Northwest forests: the marbled murrelet, and the iconic northern spotted owl. Again, timber advocate, Tom Partin.

Tom Partin: “We were happy that the administration agreed to take a look at these two species. They did a status review of both species, but we were disappointed with the results.”

This time, Bush's own federal scientists were the roadblock -- they kept the birds on the Endangered Species List. Scientific reviews blocked attempts to shrink the murrelet’s protected habitat.

The scientists did okay changes to the owl's protection, but environmentalists sued - more on the owl in a minute.

Number five was a little different. Instead of a rules change, the Bush game plan this time was to increase logging on federal land in Oregon, like this forest outside Corvallis.

This is federal Bureau of Land Management land - part of its 2.5 million acre checkerboard in Oregon.

Now, the timber industry argued that it never got the 1.1 billion board feet of timber promised under Bill Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan.

The friendly Bush administration agreed, and the BLM spent the last few years crafting a new logging plan -- called -- the Western Oregon Plan Revision - or WOPR, nicknamed the “whopper.”

The one thing standing in the way of the WOPR logging plan was the bird that nests on that BLM land - the northern spotted owl.

Another federal agency -- fish and wildlife -- was re-drawing habitat boundaries for the spotted owl.

But Noah Greenwald with the Center for Biological Diversity says the BLM essentially directed fish and wildlife officials to get out of the way of the WOPR.

Noah Greenwald: “They’ve essentially gerrymandered the science, so they wrote a recovery plan for the spotted owl that was effectively designed to allow the WOPR.”

Greenwald isn’t the only one alleging political manipulation. Top wildlife official Julie MacDonald resigned in a firestorm over her alleged interference with science over the spotted owl and other threatened species.

If the WOPR plan succeeds, it would elevate cutting in places that would be bad for the owl, say environmentalists like Chandra LeGue with Oregon Wild.

Chandra LeGue: “So this area would be clear-cut in another 15 or 20 years, when the trees are old and big enough to meet their clear-cutting plan.”

Timber lobbyist Tom Partin defends the kind of logging called for in the WOPR and wishes it had gone further.

Tom Partin: “It still doesn’t meet the test of ‘is it a sustainable timber harvest level’, because we think there’s a lot more growth occurring out there.”

Both the timber industry and environmental groups have just sued over the WOPR.

Sean Stevens: “You know, the Bush Administration with all these kinds of things has kind of been beating its head against a wall called science.”

Sean Stevens of Oregon Wild and a few other environmentalists say the fight over the WOPR and the northern spotted owl are emblematic of the broader debate over the competing goals of the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan: how to have both sustainable logging and a protected environment.

Dean of Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, Hal Salwasser, concludes that the Northwest Forest Plan is basically broken.

Hal Salwasser: “It is no longer clear what the purpose for federal natural resource lands is. Both the BLM and the Forest Service have a mandate to provide a sustained flow of multiple resources, and neither agency is able to do that now.”

If federal forest policy is going to be repaired under Barack Obama, it may take compromise.

Consensus may lie in forest thinning projects. Environmentalists acknowledge thinning helps prevent wildfires and loggers can still get a lot of board feet that way.

Ironically, thinning is one of the few things the Bush Administration accomplished. But that went through Congress. Thinning wasn't even on the secret memo.

© 2009 OPB

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton