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Northwest Forest Plan at 20

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The celebrations have been, shall we say, somewhat muted. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the official adoption of the famed document known as the Northwest Forest Plan, the climax of the great and, we thought, everlasting environmental and economic conflict over the sale of publicly owned trees for financial gain. The great compromise declared an end to the timber wars by placing 85 percent of the region’s federal timber off-limits to commercial logging. At least, it was called a compromise at the time, proposed by the great compromiser himself, President Bill Clinton. As he promised in his campaign, it was to be a form of regional healing.

It was an enormous success, if you accept that it purpose was to end commercial timber harvest in the Northwest’s national forests. Remember the context of the time. It was the culmination of the fervently held goal of a great environmental movement, based on the strongly held belief that the region’s forests were being ravaged by commercial exploitation and the natural systems the forests sustained were disappearing with the trees. Forest loss was measured in football fields per day. Sawmills were piled high with logs purchased from the United States, to be lopped into studs or shaved into plywood veneer. The Northwest’s old-growth forests were mere remnants by the 1990s, they said. Wildlife dependent on old-growth habitat, like the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, were on the brink extinction and spared only by stern federal protection. The Clinton administration’s intervention was essential to stop the destruction that was perpetuated by vested interests and the perverted regional culture of extractive industry, or so they said. The Northwest Forest Plan came at the last possible moment, to save the last old growth from the merciless ax. “We were facing an ecological collapse,” said Dominick DellaSala of Oregon’s Geos Institute, in an excellent 20th anniversary story in by Daniel Jack Chasan. The Northwest, said DellaSalla, was “down to the last 15 or 20 percent of the old forests that were holding the whole system together.”

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