Amending the Northwest Forest Plan Presents Both Opportunity and Risk

by Quinn Read, Director of Conservation

For 30 years, the Northwest Forest Plan has helped protect mature and old-growth forests, Northern Spotted Owls, Marbled Murrelets, and other imperiled fish and wildlife on federal lands throughout the Pacific Northwest. Now, the Forest Service is amending the plan—ostensibly to address changing conditions related to climate change and wildfire. Depending on your perspective, this presents an incredible opportunity to strengthen or weaken the plan.

We all have an interest in a strong Northwest Forest Plan. We need it to protect our remaining mature and old-growth forests and the many imperiled species that depend on that forest habitat for survival. We also need it to protect our collective interest in clean air, drinkable water, and the climate-stabilizing benefits forests provide by storing and sequestering vast amounts of carbon.

Salmon jumping out of river
Photo by marneejill

The Northwest Forest Plan was conceived as a solution to address decades of conflict over out-of-control logging of our ancient forests. It is now the world’s largest ecosystem management plan, governing 24.5 million acres of federally managed land in western Oregon and Washington, and in California. When it was adopted in 1994, it represented a historic landmark compromise to protect and restore old-growth forest and stream habitat for imperiled species—while still allowing some logging on public lands.

Our organization’s history is closely linked to the Northwest Forest Plan. In the 1980s, in response to the devastating impacts of unchecked industrial logging of our old-growth forests, we began a new and intense focus on protecting federal forests for the benefit of vulnerable wildlife, with a focus on Northern Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets. In fact, it was a result of a petition filed by Birds Connect Seattle, Bird Alliance of Oregon, and others that led to the listing of Northern Spotted Owl as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990—a listing that prompted creation of the plan.

Since its inception, the Northwest Forest Plan has become a model for science-based, landscape-scale ecosystem management. It has also been the subject of relentless attacks to weaken its core provisions. These provisions include a system of land allocation that places federal land into seven categories, each with varying degrees of protection. It designated large “reserves” to protect and recover forests as well as “matrix” areas between reserves where logging would be permitted. The plan also established stream buffers to protect water quality and habitat and created a “survey and manage” program to protect vulnerable species in areas being considered for logging.

While imperfect (it was a compromise, after all), the Northwest Forest Plan has successfully achieved much of what it was designed to do. It has helped protect mature and older forests and the species that depend on them, maintained habitat connectivity, and improved water quality and salmon habitat. In doing so, the plan has also helped reduce carbon emissions across the region. Yet the plan also left a million acres open for logging. With the dual climate and biodiversity crises bearing down on us, it’s imperative that we improve protections and close any loopholes that allow logging in ecologically sensitive areas.

As is the case whenever bureaucrats throw around terms like “amend,” “modernize,” “streamline,” or “update,” it behooves us to approach this process with a healthy dose of skepticism. Just like execuspeak in the boardroom (I’m looking at you, “synergy” and “move the needle”), we could end up with an amended plan filled with placating language about conservation and sustainability that ultimately means nothing—or worse, cloaks gutted protections for forests and imperiled species.

It’s imperative that any Northwest Forest Plan amendment makes the plan stronger and more responsive to the reality of our changing climate. Through Executive Order 14072, President Biden gave the Forest Service clear guidance to conserve and restore mature and old-growth forests as a natural climate solution. Although the plan protected many older forests, it left a great deal of mature and old-growth forest open for logging. The amended plan must recognize and protect the ability of these forests to sequester and store carbon.

We have been and will continue advocating for the Forest Service to prioritize preserving biodiversity and habitat connectivity. This includes strengthening protections for Northern Spotted Owl, Marbled Murrelet, and the many other at-risk fish and wildlife species impacted by habitat fragmentation and loss. And the Forest Service mustn’t forget beavers! Beavers are so hot right now. Beaver reintroduction in unoccupied areas would help restore aquatic areas and increase drought resilience.

Beaver. photo by Becky Matsubara

To ensure that the plan remains relevant long into the future, the amendment process must be truly inclusive. We strongly support all efforts to ensure meaningful Tribal consultation and engagement. Additionally, in considering amendments to address sustainable communities, the Forest Service must recognize the many social and economic benefits that forests provide to local communities—including clean water and air, climate resilience, and recreation.

The Forest Service has set an ambitious timeline to complete the amendment process by the end of 2024. As a first step, the Secretary of Agriculture established a Federal Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations on potential amendments. But the Forest Service formally initiated the amendment process in December 2023 with a “Notice of Intent” that outlined their plan to address fire resistance and resilience, climate change, protecting mature and old-growth ecosystems, supporting and protecting communities close to national forest lands, and incorporating Indigenous knowledge to achieve forest management goals.

After reviewing recommendations of the Federal Advisory Committee and feedback from public comments on the Notice of Intent, the Forest Service will release a draft amendment. This draft, along with an analysis of environmental impacts and possible alternatives required by the National Environmental Policy Act (referred to as a Draft Environmental Impact Statement), will be available for public comment.

We anticipate the public comment process will begin later this summer, so please be sure you’ve signed up to receive our action alerts. The grassroots advocacy that led to the plan in the first place is just as important in its amendment. Your voice is incredibly important—stay tuned for ways to get involved to protect our ancient forests and imperiled wildlife.