History of forest battles offers view to future


CORVALLIS, Ore. – Some of the changing social values and demands to ensure “species viability” that ultimately caused the collapse of national forest management plans in the 1980s and 90s have been addressed, scientists say, but other topics still have similar potential for conflict.

A historical analysis by researchers at Oregon State University, published in the professional journal Forest Policy and Economics, concluded that many lessons have been learned by management agencies following the contentious battles of the last 20 years, when one Forest Service management plan after another was invalidated by courts due to inadequate measures to protect wildlife species.

A fundamental change has taken place in management agencies, which now incorporate ecological science much more heavily into their decisions, have a greater understanding of what it takes to protect habitats and species, and have raised the bar in terms of protecting species at the expense of dramatically lower timber harvests on public lands.

But the heightened attention being paid to species protection, researchers say in their report, is no guarantee that other forest management controversies based on different conflicts won’t result in the same “crisis management and angry voices” that have become the undesirable norm in recent decades.

“Some lessons have been learned, and some changes made in regulations as a result of different political administrations,” said Sally Duncan, policy research director with the Institute for Natural Resources at OSU. “But substantive change is a very slow process and there will be more crises in forest management; you can count on that. It may just be in different areas.”

This analysis was done, researchers say, to help determine why forest plans developed in the 1980s and ‘90s so regularly ended up in court, and why “ad hoc” groups of scientists who examined the plans so consistently concluded that they did not allow for enough species protection – beginning with the northern spotted owl, but later broadening to concerns much beyond that.

“The plans crafted by the Forest Service in the 1980s were universally deemed inadequate,” said Jonathan Thompson, an OSU doctoral candidate in the Department of Forest Science. “We wanted to understand how the same basic set of laws and regulations could result in such completely different conclusions, and hopefully learn how these types of problems might be avoided in the future.”

The issues that led to forest management gridlock began with the rise of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s, and were intertwined with the post-World War II demand for more housing, increasing urbanization, and timber production gradually giving way to a view of forests as places valuable for recreation, fish and wildlife protection, and scenery.

The Forest Service had become “by default a timber agency” and struggled to adapt to these social changes and ever more conflicting mandates, the report noted, and like many large bureaucratic institutions was reluctant to change.

A host of environmental laws passed in the 1960s and ‘70s added to the pressures, membership in environmental groups surged, and interest groups became adept at using court challenges to halt timber sales. As forest plans began to fail, specialized science groups were appointed to examine the types of species protection provided in these plans, and frequently found them inadequate.

“The species protection standards were very new, and the regulations were often vague, hard to interpret, sometimes almost impossible to achieve,” Thompson said. “Management agencies often did not have the scientific background, ecological expertise or the latest data, all of which were available to the groups examining their plans, and the scientists and agencies often came to very different conclusions.”

Prior to the 1980s, the researchers noted, ecological science was often a minor part of forest plans and scientists in that field were rarely consulted. Now it has become a primary force in these plans and some scientists are being criticized for being “too involved” in policy issues and management decisions.

Another hypothesis the study explored was the level of risk to species. At first, many forest planners believed that a few, isolated old-growth reserves would take care of most species concerns. But for the northern spotted owl, necessary room for protection rose from an initial estimate of 30 acres to 3,000. By the early 1990s, the number of species under consideration was more than 1,000. Species protection moved from a minor constraint on timber production to a driver of planning and management.

The end result of all these forces, researchers said, was a major decrease in timber production from public lands, a disruption of traditional approaches used by the Forest Service, a groundswell of environmental awareness and concern, and major political and court fights.

Many participants interviewed in the research, the study authors said, now feel that problems with species protection are largely in the past, that management agency approaches have changed, more science is being used in plan development, and a broad body of case law is now available to add consistency to the process – at least so far as it relates to species viability.

But the broader controversies of recent years, the study noted, showed a process “crippled by the incremental nature of scientific understanding, institutional problems, and larger social dynamics” – forces that have not gone away.