Document 55: A Summary of Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan, 1993

Ross W. Gorte, "The Clinton Administration's Forest Plan for the Pacific Northwest," report 93-664 ENR, 16 July 1993, Major Studies and Issue Briefs of the Congressional Research Service, 1993 supplement, microfilm reel 13, frame 130.

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CRS Report for Congress
Congressional Research Service • The Library of Congress
The Clinton Administration's Forest Plan for the Pacific Northwest 

Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division


            On April 2, 1993, President Clinton fulfilled a campaign promise by convening a forest conference in Portland, OR, to address the gridlock over management of the Federal forestlands in the Pacific Northwest and the resulting effects on communities and the regional economy. Many interests and ideas were heard by the President, Vice President Gore, numerous Cabinet Members, and other Presidential advisors. At the close of the conference, the President committed to preparing a plan within 60 days to address the problems.

            Intensive efforts following the forest conference led to development of a background paper with 10 options. This paper has not been distributed, because elements of it are still being discussed and modified, but briefings and press reports have disclosed many of the pieces. "Option 9" of the background paper appears to be the basis for the proposal released by the White House on July 1, 1993: The Forest Plan for a Sustainable Economy and a Sustainable Environment. This plan is composed of three major pieces: forest management, economic development, and agency coordination.


            [In 1991 U.S. District Court Judge William Dwyer ruled that federal timber sales in the Pacific Northwest violated the Endangered Species Act by threatening the northern spotted owl. He issued an injunction, barring the federal government from selling timber on many of its lands until it devised an acceptable plan to promote spotted owl recovery.] To resolve the legal challenges and lift the existing injunctions against the Forest Service and BLM, the forest management segment of the plan must be approved by the courts as fulfilling the land management laws. . . . The plan will be . . . submitted to Judge Dwyer of the Federal District Court for Western Washington for the injunction against the Forest Service. It is unclear, at this time, whether the court will find that the plan meets the legal requirements, and how the plan and Judge Dwyer's decision might affect other lawsuits and the recovery plan for the spotted owl.

Reserve Areas

            The plan proposes reserve areas based on watersheds, old growth forests, and "designated conservation areas to protect specific species." . . .

            The plan proposes "very limited activities" in the reserves, but allows timber salvage and thinning "where the primary objective . . . is to accelerate the development of old growth conditions." Environmental groups have expressed concern about the potential misuse of salvage and thinning to produce timber for industrial production with little regard to ecosystem health. This concern is bolstered by a report from the Office of Technology Assessment noting that the Forest Service financial and managerial control systems focus on timber output and that the agency does not have adequate measures of ecosystem health. . . .

Adaptive Management Areas

            The plan proposes 10 adaptive management areas of 78,00 to 380,000 acres each. . . .

            The adaptive management areas are intended to provide "intensive ecological experimentation and social innovation to develop and demonstrate new ways to integrate ecological and economic objectives and allow for local involvement in defining the future." A "rigorous monitoring and research program" is proposed to assess the results and the effectiveness of the efforts.

            Implementation is the key to whether this approach is successful. . . .

Harvest Levels

             The plan proposes "a sustainable timber harvest of 1.2 billion board feet annually on the spotted owl forests." . . .

            This sale level is substantially below sales and harvests from the affected Federal lands over the past 30 years. However, some decline from peak harvest levels of the late 1980s is clearly not due to spotted owl protection. Sale levels in the current forest plans have also been criticized as being unsustainable. Nonetheless, the proposed sale program is only about half the level that was projected under the recommendations of the Interagency Scientific Committee (the ISC or Thomas Report). [In 1992 Forest Service biologist Jack Ward Thomas chaired a committee that drafted a forest management plan designed to promoted spotted owl recovery.] On the other hand, it is nearly double the sale program that has been achieved under the current injunctions. It is unclear, and not documented in the proposed plan, whether this decline[in timber harvests] either is larger than necessary or is even sufficient to meet the legal obligations [imposed by Judge Dwyer]. . . .

            The plan proposes four additional steps to ease the impact of the reduced timber supplies from Federal lands. One is an unspecified new rule from the Fish and Wildlife Service to ease timber harvesting restrictions on non-federal lands inhabited by spotted owls; however, this may be inconsistent with the ESA [Endangered Species Act], at least until a recovery plan has been completed. The second is Federal assistance for backlogged timber sales on Indian reservations, but where, why, and how many sales are backlogged is unclear. The third step is to restrict the use of certain tax expenditures, to curtail tax assistance for log exports. [Mill workers and environmentalists had objected for years to loopholes in the tax laws that allowed timber companies to write off part of the costs of exporting unprocessed logs.]

            The fourth step is to accelerate the sale of dead and dying timber in eastern Washington and Oregon. Many eastside forest ecosystems have allegedly been damaged by past management practices and prolonged drought, and accelerating the salvage program is proposed as a way both to improve the health of these ecosystems and to provide timber. However, the traditional focus on timber outputs, the inadequate measures of forest health, and the results of past mismanagement raise concerns about the effectiveness of the proposal, and whether it would be conducted within the current national forest planning process.


            The Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative is the segment of the President's forest plan aimed at assisting the economic transition in the Pacific Northwest. The controversy between industry and environmental groups over the past several years has centered on forest management issues, with less attention to the subsequent and related economic adjustment. Nonetheless, the debate over the economic transition has raised concerns about the level of funding needed, the distribution of assistance, and the effectiveness of the delivery system.

      The Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative targets four groups for assistance: workers and families; communities and infrastructure; business and industry; and ecosystem investment. In addition, the plan proposes a Northwest Economic Adjustment Fund, with discretion for the States on how best to use the funds. Proposed funding for the Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative is $1.2 billion over 6 years, including $270 million for FY1994 [fiscal year 1994].

Workers and Families

             The plan proposes an increase in funding under title III of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) for assisting job searches and retraining and relocating workers; this assistance is available for all displaced workers, not just those in the timber industry. For FY1994, a 110-percent ($22 million) increase in funds is proposed for the Northwest.

Communities and Infrastructure

         The plan proposes stable payments to the counties . . . to replace the timber receipt-sharing system that has provided widely fluctuating annual payments. [Counties received 25% of the proceeds from federal timber sales.] Additional funding for the Northwest is proposed through the Rural Development Administration, Community Development Block Grants, and other program; for FY1994, the increase is to be 25 percent ($75 million) over the original budget request for these programs. These funds are intended to assist communities in planning for economic development and diversification and in providing the necessary infrastructure for such development.

Business and Industry

            The plan proposes a 47-percent ($77 million) increase in funding for the Northwest through the Rural Development Administration, the Small Business Administration, and other business assistance programs for FY1994. The funds in these programs are intended to improve access to capital, to expand technical assistance, and to enhance access to domestic and global markets.

Ecosystem Investment

             The plan proposes to increase funds for watershed maintenance, ecosystem restoration and research, environmental monitoring, and forest stewardship. Most of these efforts will be aimed at Federal lands, but forest stewardship will include assistance for private, nonindustrial forestlands. For FY1994, the proposed increase is 19 percent ($82 million), funded through the Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Environmental Protection Agency.


             Improving agency coordination is the third major segment of President Clinton's forest plan. The plan states that this segment is essential, because the various agencies have been seen as acting "in isolation or even at cross purposes in managing federal forest lands."

            The plan proposes "forest planning based on watersheds" . . . that would involve "all affected parties in the discussions." The benefits of watershed-level planning have been long debated in land management literature. However, it is unclear how this new planning will mesh with the existing land and resource management planning. . . .


             President Clinton's forest plan is an attempt to resolve the continuing controversy over forest management in the Pacific Northwest. Because of the longstanding polarization of interests, it is virtually impossible to craft a plan that would be widely accepted. The proposed harvest level is a very substantial drop from record levels of the late 1980s, but whether the decline is sufficient or is more than necessary to meet the requirements of environmental laws and regulations is unclear. . . .

            The reserve areas and adaptive management areas, though not yet clearly identified, appear to be based on reasonable scientific principles of forest management. However, their proper implementation is essential, and many critics do not trust the agencies to implement the plan to achieve the specified goals. Substantial funding over 5 years is proposed for workers, communities, businesses, and ecosystem investment, but whether the funding levels and delivery mechanisms are adequate and attainable is unknown. The efforts to improve coordination among agencies are desirable, but previous efforts at interagency coordination have often proven ineffective.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest