The Clinton Forest Plan




This article orignially appeared in Z Magazine, April 1994.

After nearly a year of back room deals, political arm-twisting and viciously polarized debate, the Clinton administration has released the final details of its long-awaited plan for the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. In early April, a federal judge is expected to decide whether the plan—which would permit the logging of well over 20,000 acres of pristine National Forest land every year—meets the requirements of U.S. environmental laws. The Administration has described the plan as a way to strike a balance between environmental and economic concerns, protecting both spotted owls and logging jobs while also beginning to restore endangered Pacific salmon runs. For most eco-activists in the northwest, however, the plan merely paints a thin veneer of conservation on the continued destruction of the region’s unique forest ecosystems.

The controversy over the northwest forests became polarized long before Judge William Dwyer put a halt to federal timber sales on behalf of the northern spotted owl and other endangered inhabitants of the region. It has become a war of conflicting cultures and economic realities that has often overshadowed debates about environmental policy. The northwest has become the main arena for so called “wise use” groups seeking to mobilize displaced working people on behalf of corporate agendas. The region has become enmeshed in Congressional power politics and in heated conflicts between grassroots activists and the leading Washington-based environmental groups. Media images of angry loggers in the northwest venting their frustrations against eco-activists, government regulation and spotted owls have, more than any other issue, sustained corporate efforts to paint all environmental struggles as conflicts between environmental protection and “jobs.”

Bill Clinton campaigned and gained significant support in the northwest, as a voice of balance and compromise, promising to come up with a plan that would please everyone. Last April, he held a much-publicized “forest summit” in Portland, Oregon, which brought together a somewhat narrow, but still impressive spectrum of mainstream forest advocates and industry representatives. He promised a plan that would consider the long-term health of both the forests and timber communities preserving endangered ecosystems while producing a “predictable and sustainable level of timber sales and non-timber resources.” Still, activists in the region hoped for the best. “Everyone was expecting that Clinton would give us a good plan,” says Jeff St. Clair, editor of the Portland-based Wild Forest Review (probably the most insightful source of information and analysis on forest issues these days—available from Save the West, 3758 SE Milwaukee, Portland, OR 9720) “at least one that would end logging of old growth in the National Forests.”

As with most of Clinton’s “compromises,” the draft forest plan released last summer pleased virtually no one. The timber companies, which in many cases have seen record profits from increased logging of their own privately-owned forests, complained that too much forest land was being “locked up” in wildlife reserves, while environmentalists pointed out that the plan’s “reserves”—which would continue to be open to some forms of logging—were insufficient to ensure a future for species dependent upon intact old-growth ecosystems. mainstream environmentalists, however, were rather circumspect in their criticisms, unwilling to criticize their friends who are working in the administration. Thus, media reports throughout the winter depicted the Clinton plan as weighed in favor of the environmentalists. Administration officials were then able to exploit well-known divisions among activists in the northwest to try to extract further concessions and make the plan more “salable” to the timber industry.

The Ancient Forests

To anyone who has visited the vast ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, they are a place of overwhelming power and mystery inspiring a profound sense of awe and reverence. Timber interests, on the other hand, have long characterized these forests as “decadent” and “overgrown,” a view tacitly accepted by generations of loggers, but definitively challenged by scientific studies in the 1970s and 1980s that revealed them to be among the most biologically productive forests on Earth. Thousands of species of plants and animals depend on intact old-growth forest for their survival, including some 150 varieties of Pacific salmon, and the much celebrated northern spotted owl. Snow-capped mountains feed wild, raging rivers that provide fresh water, as well as fish, to the vast coastal region, while the forests help maintain soil fertility and protection from both erosion and flooding. The region’s unique coastal rainforests have no counterpart anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Widespread logging in the northwest began about a century ago, and speeded up dramatically in the 1980s. People who have hiked the Cascades or the Olympic Mountains, or seen the dramatic aerial photographs made available in recent years, are stunned by the checkerboard of clearcut devastation that the forests of the northwest have become. Steep mountainsides are routinely clearcut to stumps, and exposed soils are washed away by heavy rains, silting up the rivers and threatening fish populations. Today, less than 5 percent of the original oldgrowth forest remains, most of which is in the National Parks, National Forests, and other federal and state lands. Satellite photographs released by NASA during the 1992 UN Earth Summit revealed an extent of destruction and fragmentation in the U.S. northwest that is far more advanced than the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

While the pace of logging in the northwest has increased, employment has declined steadily. For example in Oregon, logging increased nearly 20 percent in 10 years, while employment in the timber industry fell by 20 percent. The main reasons are timber exports and increased mechanization. In 1992, out of 10 billion board-feet of timber that left west coast ports, less than one percent was in the form of finished lumber. These exports represent about half of the trees that are cut in a given year. Timber companies are raking up record profits shipping whole, unprocessed logs overseas (largely to Japan), or grinding them into wood chips or pulp. In the California redwood country, several major milling operations have left for Mexico in recent years. Although some 33,000 jobs now depend on logging in the regions National Forests (nearly a quarter of northwest timber industry jobs), this pales in comparison to the jobs lost due to timber exports—or the consequences of recent layoffs by Boeing and other manufacturing companies. While activists in California and throughout the northwest have clearly demonstrated that the timber industry treats its own workers as expendable commodities, just like the forests, most timber communities have fallen prey to industry claims that environmentalists are to blame for their woes.

Option 9

What is at stake in the northwest—and countless other environmental battles—is the future ecological integrity of an entire region. The problem lies far beyond the protection of any single species. However, since ecosystems currently have no legal standing in the United States (many efforts are underway, both well-meaning and backhanded ones, to change this), endangered species like the northern spotted owl have become the centerpiece of legal strategies to save whole ecosystems. Species like the spotted owl and marbelled murrelet (a seabird that nests inland on the mossy limbs of old growth trees) are entirely dependent on old growth forest for their survival and have become important scientific, as well as legal, indicators of the health of the forest as a whole.

In 1992, a dozen regional and national environmental groups filed suit in federal district court in Seattle to block further timber sales on federal lands in the region. Judge Dwyer filed an injunction charging “repeated and systematic” violations of environmental laws and the release of new acreage for logging came to a halt. This does not mean that there has not been any logging of old growth in the last year and a half, however. Timber cutting on company-owned land has continued unabated, and enough federal land had already been released to sustain logging in the National Forests until sometime next year.

On the heels of the 1993 “forest summit,” the Clinton administration commissioned the U.S. Forest Service (which is actually part of the Agriculture Department) to come up with a series of options for resuming timber sales in accordance with Judge Dwyer’s ruling. The study team was headed by Jack Ward Thomas, a senior research ecologist at USFS who has since been appointed by Clinton to head the agency. Thomas was the author of a pioneering text on wildlife management and architect of a 1990 “conservation strategy” for the northern spotted owl. The earlier plan received accolades for its thoroughness and for scientifically demonstrating the need for millions of acres to be set aside for owl habitat. It was also criticized for bending to political expediency, proposing that half the owls be sacrificed in the short term in the hope of stabilizing the population in a hundred years. The Clinton Plan would echo this proposal, allowing some of the last remaining old growth to be cut now in exchange for the promise of a more regulated forest in the future.

Thomas’s team came up with eight scenarios, allowing up to nearly a billion board-feet (approximately 20,000 acres) of National Forest timber to be extracted every year for the next decade. Four million board-feet was the typical rate through the 1980s. Each scenario was evaluated for its projected effect on the probability of survival of key forest species (owls, murrelets, salmon, and over a thousand others) through the next century. The White House rejected all eight options as not permitting enough logging to satisfy the timber industry’s friends in Congress, and ordered the development of an additional scenario, the dreaded “Option 9.”

Like many Clinton initiatives, Option 9 borrows progressive language to serve far more dubious ends. It was roundly praised by the media and some environmentalists for limiting future logging, establishing reserves for spotted owls, and establishing buffer zones along important river watersheds. Funds were promised for job-creating waters led restoration programs to further protect salmon runs. But, typically, there is a steady stream of exceptions, conditions and loopholes that ultimately could give the timber industry free reign over half of the remaining old-growth forest. Thinning and “salvage” logging would be allowed even in the owl reserves, and logging on the dryer eastern slopes of the Cascades could be increased to make up for losses in timber revenue on the western side. The plan would relax limits on logging on privately owned lands, a matter of special concern in California, where most of the remaining unprotected redwoods are owned by corporations such as the notorious Maxxam conglomerate. Forest-dependent species would continue to disappear, even according to the plan’s calculations. The land would continue to be degraded, and the rapacious practices of the timber companies would continue to dominate the ecology and the economy of the Cascadian region long into the future.

Power Politics

Having advanced a plan that only began to address the concerns of environmentalists, the Clinton administration sought to lock them in to supporting its implementation. Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt went to sell the plan in timber country with a promise that thousands of acres of land would immediately be released from the 1992 injunction, something which could only happen with the consent of the 12 groups that brought the original suit. The carrot for environmentalists was a vague promise that they would have a role in developing the final form of the forest plan to be submitted to Judge Dwyer this spring. The stick was a threat by the Administration to team up with House Speaker Tom Foley (a long-time supporter of the timber industry) to attach a rider to the latest Interior Department appropriations bill that would essentially make future timber sales immune from legal action. As conservationists have become increasingly dependent on federal 1awsuits and timber sale challenges to save patches of forest from the chainsaws, the threat of so-called “sufficiency” legislation (i.e., whatever the government decides to do is defined as sufficient to meet legal requirements) was enough to bring the 12 original plaintiffs to the bargaining table.

By November of last year, the 12 groups had agreed to release some 83 million board feet (over 2000 acres) of timber from the injunction. The Sierra Club’s independent legal arm, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (SCLDF) was widely reported to have pressured reluctant activists to stay in the game. For some, it was a legitimate trade-off of forests that would soon be cut anyway—what Andy Stahl of SCLDF termed “stands of sales on death row”—for more crucial areas that would now be placed inside reserves. It was also seen as a vote of confidence in the movement’s “friends” in the administration. To others, however, it was a disgusting power play that put groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society firmly in the administration’s pocket. While representatives of the 12 plaintiffs were haggling over maps, the White House brazenly announced that this was only the beginning, and that vast additional acreages would soon follow. According to Jeff St. Clair, in the November Wild Forest Review, “The point was never about the amount of timber released…but to turn key environmentalists from defenders of ancient forests to designers and defenders of timber sales in ancient forests. The point was about building a relationship of power and control, not goodwill, cooperation and trust.”

It took a last-minute intervention by four smaller Oregon-based environmental groups to save these forests from the chainsaws. The grassroots coalition Save the West, the Native Forest Council (which is campaigning to end logging in all National Forests), the Kalmiopsis (southwestern Oregon) chapter of the Audubon Society, and the Friends of the Breitenbush Cascades filed a brief against the release of timber sales that appears to have effectively held up the deal. One common thread connecting these groups is that their founders had all worked their way up the ranks of the major regional groups, only to become disillusioned and depart to form smaller, less compromising groups of their own.

Meanwhile, the Washington DC-based Western Ancient Forest Campaign (WAFC), which began as a coalition of northwest groups, organized a major canvass that produced a record 80,000 public comments criticizing Clinton’s original draft plan. This helped delay the entire process until February, as interagency battles raged and more last-minute deals were struck. At the end of February, a final Environmental Impact Statement was released, which reduced the annual timber cut from 1.2 to 1.1 billion board-feet, and strengthened some conservation measures, especially around salmon-bearing headwaters streams, but also exempted private (read corporate) lands from the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. According to a statement by Jim Owens of WAFC, it was expected “that the Clinton administration is going to continue to try to split hairs in an attempt to meet the requirements of Judge William Dwyer.”

By the beginning of April, the twelve plaintiff groups and the four “renegades” will have decided whether to file suit against the implementation of the revised Clinton plan, and how broadly focused such a suit can be. According to Jeff St. Clair, an effective intervention would cost participating groups upwards of $1 million, a sum which would require a degree of consensus among northwest environmentalists that has not been seen for some time. Timber companies are expected to come forth with a lawsuit of their own, along with a continuing high profile PR campaign against the Dwyer injunction. If the plan fails, activists expect the Administration might go back to Congress and ask for sufficiency, leading to a divisive legislative battle that northwestern congressional representatives are not expected to relish in this election year.

For St. Clair and other independent activists in the region, the only viable solution may be to defeat the plan now and force the administration to pay politically for backtracking on its promises to the region. “The Clinton team has been a nightmare for us,” St. Clair explained, “they’ve given us a plan that could have been produced during the Reagan-Bush years and environmentalists are unwilling to criticize their former leaders who are now in Washington. People act as if they expect a `stealth revolution’ from within the administration, but it’s not coming.”

Reaction and Acquiescence

Elsewhere around the country, Interior Secretary Babbitt and others in the Administration are continuing to renege on promises made to environmentalists. Efforts to reform grazing and mining laws are at a virtual standstill, and Babbitt has been making deals with developers and timber interests to demonstrate the `flexibility’ of the Endangered Species Act. The Act, which was supposed to be reauthorized by Congress in 1991 has been at the symbolic center of right wing efforts to dismantle U.S. environmental laws. To soften opposition to the ESA, Babbitt has highlighted schemes to permit development of endangered habitat in exchange for negotiated concessions by the developers. Housing developments in California, a Walmart store in Florida, and massive logging operations across the deep South, among others, have been allowed to proceed within endangered habitat areas in exchange for long-term “habitat conservation plans” and agreements to set aside protected zones for endangered species. Opponents have pointed out that fragmented and isolated areas of endangered habitat threaten the long-term survival of such species, even where nesting sites for birds and small patches of wetland are protected in the short run. The government has thus appropriated the movement’s long-cherished language of ecosystem-wide protection in order to permit partial development of endangered ecosystems.

These concessions are being offered in the midst of a widespread right wing assault on environmental regulation. Under the transparent guise of protecting jobs, efforts are underway to abolish all remaining constraints on the unencumbered manipulation of capital. With no foreign “enemies” worth taking seriously, environmentalists have become a key “enemy in our midst” for many ideologues on the right. This is being played out in Congress, and in countless state and local battles, with corporate-funded “wise use” and “property rights” groups willingly providing the shock troops.

On the national scene, advocates are looking ahead to congressional debates over endangered species, as well as the renewal of the Clean Water Act and the long-embattled Superfund for toxic waste cleanups. The Administration’s plan to elevate the EPA to cabinet status was recently derailed by proposed amendments that would impose cost-benefit analysis on every regulation, force compensation of landowners for any limitations on the use of their private property, and prohibit “unfunded mandates,” i.e. regulations that states and localities are required to follow, but are not compensated for with federal funds.

In such a climate, liberals argue that we should accept what we can get, given what WAFC terms “probably the least environmentally sensitive Congress in a decade or more.” The struggle for the future of the northwest forests, however, clearly demonstrates the Administration’s ability to manipulate its supposed friends to diffuse opposition from the left, while compelling liberals to submit to corporate agendas. It has been suggested that Clinton aides used their personal knowledge of the divisions among environmentalists in the northwest to extract concessions over timber sales. This experience deserves serious attention as activists gear up for struggles over health care, welfare reform, and other matters of urgent social import. As Clinton evolves from being a mere disappointment to liberals to actively courting the right, the acquiescence of progressive forces becomes a guaranteed recipe for disaster.

Return of the Privatizers

Another more widely relevant lesson of the struggle for the northwest forests has been the erosive quality of efforts to change policy using the system’s own language and standards of value. For many years, environmentalists have pointed out that U.S. resource policies are not only ecologically unsustainable, but also economically unsound. The federal government loses hundreds of millions of dollars a year selling timber, leasing grazing land and issuing mining claims at far below market rates. In the case of the forests, federal subsidies for road construction, surveying, administration, and aid to county governments add up to a massive net loss for the entire federal timber program. This has been an important argument for those who would end all logging in the National Forests. However, as economic arguments have gained increasing prominence, some environmental economists are now actively promoting the idea that cost-benefit analysis and capitalist standards of profitability are a legitimate measure for all environmental decisions.

In one recent report, the prestigious WorldWatch Institute concluded that “ecologica1 pricing,” along with land reform and acceptance of indigenous rights, was the key to halting the decline of the world’s forests. Certainly, conventional commodity pricing makes it virtually impossible to take the long-term ecological health of forests, soils, rivers, and everything else in nature into account. But WorldWatch didn’t stop there. Author Alan Durning went on to endorse a plan by resource economist Randal O’Toole to reform the U.S. Forest Service by implementing fees for all forest uses, including timber, mining, camping, and providing fresh water to people downstream. The key assumption is that, since beneficial uses of the forests are inherently more valuable than extractive uses, such a scheme will allow the proper management of the forests to pay for itself.

Durning neglected to report O’Toole’s next step, which is to turn all the public forests over to private owners who, following the dictates of the market, will of necessity promote profitable ecological uses. It is difficult to fathom how, in this age of corporate monopolies and global markets, anyone can honestly claim to be so certain that ecological values will find a rightful place on corporate balance sheets. Perhaps they would raise the user fees for hiking in the National Forests enough so that wilderness exploration would again become a strictly elite activity, as some old-line conservationists would undoubtedly prefer.

This latest infusion of free-market pseudo-environmentalism has poisoned debates over forest policy in the northwest and elsewhere. Just as the so-called “sagebrush rebellion” of the 1970s set the stage for Reagan-era rollbacks in environmental enforcement, endorsements of privatization by self-professed environmentalists merely add fuel to corporate efforts to dismantle limited environmental gains. As with so many other issues, people’s healthy distrust of government bureaucracy is being mobilized in the service of attempts to dismantle public values. O’Toole’s paeans to the efficiency of the market are accompanied by a venomous budget-slashing rhetoric that should easily endear him to the Bob Doles of the world. “To apply cost-benefit analysis is simply to bulldoze [those] values [that] cannot be commensurated with others without being lost entirely,” explain the editors of the British magazine, The Ecologist in their path-breaking critique of elite environmentalism and the global market, “Whose Common Future?” (July/August 1992, now available in book form from New Society Publishers). To advocate privatization as environmental policy is to voluntarily hand the future of life on Earth to those who already are responsible for the destruction of both natural ecosystems and our own communities.