Today, the Forest Service announced it will establish a Northwest Forest Plan Federal Advisory Committee “to provide advice and recommendations on landscape management approaches that promote sustainability, climate change adaptations, and wildfire resilience while providing for increasing use of and demands from National Forest System lands in the Northwest Forest Plan area.” The Western Environmental Law Center welcomes this news.
The Northwest Forest Plan is a science-based ecosystem management plan that was adopted by the Forest Service in 1994 after several years of litigation over the effects of timber harvesting on native wildlife. Extensive timber harvests on federal lands threatened the continued existence of wildlife dependent on older forests for survival, notably the northern spotted owl. The Northwest Forest Plan area covers 19.4 million acres of federal public land in western Washington, western Oregon, and northern California.
Since the plan was adopted in 1994, conditions on the ground have changed. New ecological information underscores the need for updates. The effects of climate change, wildfire, and invasive species will continue to intensify in these forests, and the Northwest Forest Plan needs to reflect that reality. Rules for updating the plan, written in 2012 and amended in 2016, emphasize that land managers should adapt forest plans to address changing environmental conditions using strategic amendments.
“The Northwest Forest Plan was the world’s first ecosystem management plan, and while many elements have withstood the test of time, a warming climate compels a science-based update so it can achieve its conservation objectives,” said Susan Jane Brown, senior attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. “WELC and our partners have relied on the Northwest Forest Plan since its inception to deliver clean drinking water to communities, provide recreational opportunities for the region, and to ensure the viability of iconic wildlife. Today, we need a contemporary plan that is adapted to rapidly changing environmental conditions driven by climate change. An updated plan should reflect the Biden administration’s priorities: protecting mature and old-growth forests, preserving biodiversity, and restoring forests for wildfire resilience. We look forward to the opportunity to ensure those outcomes.”
The Forest Service’s announcement calls for nominations for a 20-member federal advisory committee that will provide formal recommendations to the agency regarding updating the Northwest Forest Plan. Nine members will represent the scientific community, seven members will represent nongovernmental organizations, and four members will represent governmental and public at-large interests. Applications must be received by the Forest Service by January 17, 2023. Appointments to the advisory committee will be made by the Secretary of Agriculture. Information on the application process is available at the announcement link.
The Northwest Forest Plan amended forest management plans for 19 national forests administered by the U.S. Forest Service, covering 19.4 million acres in Washington, Oregon, and Northern California, along with seven Bureau of Land Management (BLM) districts covering 2.7 million acres in Western Oregon and Northern California. Since 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan has remained essentially unchanged with respect to the 19 national forests. However, the Plan has not applied to the seven BLM districts since 2016, when the BLM separately amended its local forest management plans for those districts.
The Northwest Forest Plan divides the federal lands into several different management categories and provides management direction for each category through a set of Standards and Guidelines. In addition to Congressionally reserved areas and administratively withdrawn lands, the plan’s main management categories are:
- Late successional reserves and managed late successional areas (7.5 million acres) – large blocks of forest land managed to protect and restore late-successional and old-growth forest ecosystems.
- Riparian reserves (2.6 million acres located in matrix) – wide bands of forest along rivers, streams, and landslide prone areas managed to protect water quality, fish habitat, and aquatic ecosystems.
- Adaptive management areas (1.5 million acres) – 10 areas around the region with specific local direction in which more management flexibility is provided to encourage testing of innovative approaches to forest management.
- Matrix (4 million acres) – all remaining federal forest lands, where commercial logging is generally permitted.
The plan also established a four-part Aquatic Conservation Strategy, consisting of riparian reserves (see above), a large network of key watersheds, watershed analysis requirements, and watershed restoration. Restoration work was to focus on reducing erosion from old logging roads and restoring riparian vegetation and in-stream habitat complexity based on a scientific assessment of needs and risks to aquatic function.