It is taking longer than expected to carry out President Clinton’s Northwest forest plan, partly because of lingering tensions as the region moves away from dependence on logging, a government report said Wednesday.
But overall, the 10-year plan dropping logging levels to one-fourth the annual average of the 1980s is off to a “measurable start,” said the report to Clinton and the Congress by the Agriculture Department’s Office of Forestry and Economic Assistance based in Portland, Ore.
Progress is being made in restoring key fish and wildlife habitat, and unemployment for the entire region is at its lowest in two decades, the report said.
“The economic health of the region is actually better than we had expected three years ago,” Thomas Tuchmann, the office’s director, said in an interview.
The amount of logging allowed and the number of old-growth forests both are expected to rise after the next decade as second-growth forests reach harvesting age, the study said.
“The Pacific Northwest and northern California is a region in transition. … The economy and the environment are moving toward a new equilibrium,” said the report, requested by Congress in a 1994 spending bill.
“A decade or more may be needed to refine the plan as we learn more about ecosystem management and to measure its economic, social and ecological effects.”
Clinton’s plan issued in 1993 set up millions of acres of forest reserves where logging is off-limits. It set an annual harvest target in the region of 1.1 billion board feet - down from more than 4.5 billion during the past decade.
The plan came in response to federal court orders that halted logging in the region in 1991 after finding the Forest Service was harvesting trees excessively in violation of U.S. environmental laws.
“Difficult choices were made to assure that the region’s old-growth forests that were in decline would survive over time,” the study said.
“After being shut down for three years, federal forest management is moving forward, though under somewhat difficult circumstances.”
Harvests should reach the 1-billion-board-foot mark next year after falling well short of that level the three previous years, the report said.
The review of the program said an unprecedented number of people are moving to the Northwest from outside the region; urban and suburban growth substantially exceeds rural growth; and high-technology industries are becoming “as economically powerful as forest industries.
“The region’s citizens are placing at least as much value on the biological benefits of water quality, native fish populations and the remaining old-growth forests as they have for decades on the economic benefits that forest harvest and use has provided,” it said.
“The changes in people’s perspectives about forest management require urgent and difficult choices to be made that will immediately affect the region’s fishers, loggers, tourists, communities and forests. The Northwest Forest plan is about making these difficult choices and making them today.”
The report said that for those who depend on federal timber sales, the 75 percent reduction in federal timber supply is too large. Yet those who want to protect all remaining late-successional and old-growth forests believe the plan’s 80 percent protection of those forests is too small, the report noted.
Implementation of the plan has been slow for a variety of reasons. Big fire seasons diverted staff in 1994 and this year, and funding and staff have been reduced across the board to help balance the budget.
The report said that under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to make decisions integrating economic and environmental objectives.
Strong, entrenched differences over forest use in the Northwest “culminated in a public policy no-man’s-land where everybody had a different proposal but was unwilling to make the compromises necessary to reach a solution,” the report said.