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The Northern Spotted Owl and the Northwest Forest Plan

Eric Kloster


  • Delves into the Northwest Forest Plan and its four major parts.
  • Looks at the Plan as an example of a legal compromise between Native American tribes, environmental activists, rural governments, federal agencies, and the timber industry.
The Northern Spotted Owl and the Northwest Forest Plan
Brian Handy via Getty Images

The Northwest Forest Plan was created through the efforts of federal agencies, environmental groups, Native American tribes, local governments, and the president of the United States. The Northwest Forest Plan was enacted to balance habitat protection of threatened species and the financial concerns of timber companies and rural communities. The plan is an example of how interagency coalitions can work with businesses, local activists, and municipal leaders to construct a lasting compromise. 

In 1988, the Forest Service amended its Pacific Northwest regional guide when the agency issued a record of decision (ROD). The amendments provided forestry standards for promoting the viability of the northern spotted owl. Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Evans, 952 F.2d 297, 300 (1991). There are 24 million acres of federal lands in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California that are within the geographic range of the northern spotted owl. Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Lyons, 871 F.Supp. 1291, 1300 (1994). A conservation plan was proposed for the spotted owl in 1990 by an interagency scientific committee (ISC). Id. at 1301. In 1991, the Ninth Circuit held that the Forest Service could not abandon plans to maintain a viable population of the owl as required by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) regulations simply because the Fish and Wildlife Service added the species to the endangered species list under the Endangered Species Act. Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Evans, 952, F.2d 297, 301–02 (1991). the NFMA regulation’s main purpose was to manage the forest to maintain a viable population of existing species, regardless of whether the animal or its habitat is considered threatened or endangered. Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Lyons, 871 F.Supp. 1291, 1316 (1994).

The Forest Service published a supplemental environmental impact statement (EIS) in January 1992 and in March 1992 the agency adopted an ROD establishing guidelines for managing forests within the owl’s range. Id. at 1301. Later that year, Judge Dwyer held that the Final EIS and the ROD did not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Moseley, 798 F.Supp. 1473, 1484 (1992). The court enjoined the agency to prepare a new or supplemental EIS solving the NEPA violations and the agency was ordered to stop awarding timber sales in regions that would log suitable habitat for the northern spotted owl. Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Lyons, 871 F.Supp. 1291, 1301 (1994).

The next step was a conference held on April 2, 1993, in Portland, Oregon to address the spotted owl issue. Id. at 1303. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, several members of the cabinet, loggers, millowners, environmentalists, labor leaders, local government officials, scientists, economists, and Native American tribal representatives attended the conference. Id. The president’s administration established three working groups after attending the conference in Portland. Id. The first group was the Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team (FEMAT), which was created to conduct a conservation and management assessment of all federal forests in the northern spotted owl’s range. Id. The second group was tasked with economic development and the third group dealt with agency coordination. Id. FEMAT was an interagency team consisting of scientists, economists, and sociologists, chaired by a Forest Service biologist. Id. FEMAT was tasked with developing federal forestry management options within the range of the northern spotted owl to maintain biological diversity, establish sustainable timber harvesting practices, and support the economies of rural communities in the Pacific Northwest. Id.

In response to the ongoing litigation, public hearings, and the FEMAT report, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a final EIS on the Management of Habitat for Late-Successional and Old-Growth Forest Related Species Within the Range of the Northern Spotted Owl in February of 1994, which would become known as the Northwest Forest Plan (the Plan). Id. at 1304. The Plan consists of four major parts. Id. The first component designates reserve areas where logging and other ground-disturbing practices are prohibited to preserve the ecosystem for the northern spotted owl and other late-successional and old growth forest obligate species. Id. at 1304–305. The collective reserve areas protect approximately 80 percent of the remaining late successional and old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest from timber harvesting. Limited timber thinning and salvage programs are still allowed in the Forest Service and BLM reserves if those logging practices improve the conditions of late successional and old growth forests. Id. at 1305. Additionally, the secretaries have determined that the Aquatic Conservation System has an eighty percent likelihood of establishing sufficient aquatic habitat to support sustainable salmonid populations. Id. at 1322.

Second, the Plan designates the unreserved areas as a “Matrix” where timber harvesting may continue pursuant to existing environmental requirements. Id. at 1305. Third, the Plan contains an Aquatic Conservation Strategy that overlays the reserve areas and the Matrix with a system of vital watersheds and restricts activities in those areas that would be detrimental to fish, amphibians, and water dependent invertebrates. Id. Finally, the fourth component of the Plan creates a monitoring and evaluation program and designates six percent of lands near communities affected by reduced timer sales as adaptive management areas, which are intended to be experimental forests where novel methods for achieving ecological and economic objectives will be undertaken. Id.

The Plan also included new provisions for the marbled murrelet, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Id. The plan designates a strip extending from 10 to 40 miles inland along the coast of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington to protect the seafaring bird’s habitat. Id. The Forest Service and BLM at the time estimated the region would yield approximately one billion board feet of timber per year, a seventy-three percent reduction from the logging practices of the 1980s that were determined by the courts to be unsustainable. Id. at 1305–306.

In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was challenged by the Northwest Forest Resource Council (NFRC) and environmental groups on four grounds. Id. at 1306. First, plaintiffs challenged the secretary’s implementation and interpretation of the wildlife viability provision. Id. Second, plaintiffs contended the agencies failed to comply with NEPA regarding analysis of new information, cumulative impacts, and other claims. Id. Third, NFRC alleged the secretary lacked authority to adopt provisions of the Plan. Id. The fourth claim concerned various procedures used to develop the new forestry strategy. Id. The standard of review in Seattle Audubon Soc. v. Lyons was the Administrative Procedure Act’s arbitrary and capricious review to determine whether the federal land management agencies abused their discretion. Id. at 1307.

Judge Dwyer determined that the congressional mandate for multiple uses involving logging and wildlife preservation could be fulfilled, but only if the remaining old growth forests are protected for the preservation of native vertebrate species. Id. at 1311. NFRC also contended that the agencies involved in constructing the Northwest Forest Plan acted arbitrarily and capriciously in their attempt to restore forests to pre-colonial old growth levels, estimated to be approximately 65 percent. Id. Judge Dwyer found these arguments to be unpersuasive and he determined the plaintiffs’ arguments did not justify invalidating the Northwest Forest Plan. Id. at 1325. Judge Dwyer denied the plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment and granted the defendants’ cross-motions for summary judgment. Id.

Judge Dwyer upheld the Northwest Forest Plan despite NFRC’s arguments that the plan was arbitrary and capricious. The Northwest Forest Plan remains an example of regional forest planning that protects habitat for threatened species while balancing the economic concerns of timber companies and rural communities. The plan is an example of a legal compromise between Native American tribes, environmental activists, rural governments, federal agencies, and the timber industry. The Northwest Forest Plan continues to dictate logging practices in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.