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Monday, June 30, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Forest Plan faulted by one of its authors

The Associated Press

REDDING, Calif. — The man who helped write the Northwest Forest Plan says it is not working.

After a week of reviewing the on-the-ground reality of the plan intended to balance logging on Northwest national forests against the northern spotted owl and salmon, former U.S. Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas said it is failing to fulfill its promises to people as well as the environment.

The plan has been overcome by lawsuits and political and economic pressures to the point that a timber harvest that was supposed to continue at a reduced but reliable level has degenerated to thinning and salvage operations that cannot keep up with the need to protect forests from catastrophic wildfire, Thomas said.

"The promises of the Northwest Forest Plan to the people of the communities has taken a back seat to the precautionary principle," Thomas said. "We've been so careful to do no harm that we've overlooked the promises to the people.

"My mantra (while serving as chief of the Forest Service) was to tell the truth, obey the law and take care of the land," Thomas added. "I've got real terrible concern whether we are taking care of the land."

As a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service, Thomas helped write the court-ordered protections for old-growth forests and wildlife that become the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. President Clinton named him chief of the Forest Service in 1993. He served through 1996 and is now a professor of conservation at the University of Montana.

Thomas was called in by Jack Blackwell, Pacific Southwest regional forester, as a consultant to a team reviewing the plan's performance on four national forests in Northern California — the Klamath, Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity and Mendocino — which make up a third of the area covered by the forest plan.

In the first eight years under the plan, the California forests produced 775 million board feet of timber, compared with 1.3 billion board feet promised under the plan, Blackwell said.

The review found that thinning projects to promote old-growth-forest characteristics in younger stands inside late successional reserves — areas off-limits to commercial logging to provide habitat for species like the spotted owl — have not been carried out, leaving them vulnerable to fire, Blackwell said. Only 3 percent of the 546,600 acres proposed for thinning have been done.

Thomas leveled particular blame on the policy known as Survey and Manage, which requires surveys for 304 sensitive species of plants and animals before logging can take place.

Thomas said the surveys put too fine a screen on evaluations of logging projects, and suggested the policy be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

The surveys drive up the cost of forest management by $36 to $115 per acre, and seriously slow the timetable for being able to turn out timber-harvest projects, Blackwell said.

The Forest Service is currently working on an environmental-impact statement to loosen the requirements under Survey and Manage.

The review team's suggestions include ways to speed up thinning projects to reduce wildfire danger in forests close to rural communities, an area known as the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI.

One suggests amending individual forest-management plans to exempt wildfire thinning projects inside the WUI from Survey and Manage requirements before offering logging projects. Another would speed up consultations over impacts to endangered species inside WUIs by lumping individual projects into broad programs.

At Thomas' suggestion, the review team also called for increasing Forest Service flexibility in spending its budget, which is now strictly controlled by law. Linda Goodman, Northwest Regional forester, said national forests in Oregon and Washington have faced the same problems, and she looks forward to changes in Survey and Manage.

Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, was skeptical about the need for change.

"If the Forest Service just obeyed the law and followed the plan, all its troubles would be over," he said. "It was a decade of lawbreaking that led to the Northwest Forest Plan."

Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resources Council, a timber-industry group, said the changes have been sought by the industry for a decade.

"At least now we have an administration committed to meeting these changes and once and for all implementing the plan as envisioned," he said.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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