Ashland, OR – Today 229 scientists called on the Forest Service to uphold the protections afforded hundreds of species, clean water, and salmon, which were established under the landmark Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. While still in formal environmental review, the Forest Service is proposing a plan revision on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington that includes undoing protective reserves and weakening the Aquatic Conservation Strategy of the plan. Citing “new science” and climate change concerns, the agency proposes moving to “whole-landscape level management,” where protective reserves are eliminated and mandatory stream protections become discretionary1. This is the first forest plan revision to pose such radical shifts in the protective elements of the Northwest Forest Plan.
The late-successional reserve network (LSRs) was created as an integral part of the Northwest Forest Plan land-use allocations, providing protections for approximately 7.4 million acres of public forests within the Northwest Forest planning area. This includes an estimated 425,000 acres of LSRs that are at risk of losing their protective status on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The Aquatic Conservation Strategy in the Northwest Forest Plan, which includes Riparian Reserves and various watershed assessment standards, directs the Forest Service to make streamside improvements that benefit fish, wildlife, and water quality. This policy also faces rollbacks.
According to Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist of the Ashland-based Geos Institute and lead author of the scientists’ letter, “The Forest Service has borrowed a page out of the George W. Bush administration’s failed attempts to weaken forest and stream protections that were shot down in scientific peer review, because they did not provide enough safeguards for clean water, old-growth forests, and fish and wildlife habitat.”
Jim Karr, professor emeritus of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, notes, “For nearly two decades, enforceable standards and guidelines associated with the Aquatic Conservation Strategy have protected aquatic species and ecosystems and improved water quality. The Forest Service’s proposal to make the revised Okanogan-Wenatchee forest plan’s protective elements aspirational, rather than grounding them in mandatory standards and guidelines, is not justified by their rhetoric, logic, or by recent scientific advances.”
In an open letter, 229 scientists hail the Northwest Forest Plan as a “global and regional model in biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management.” They cite recent studies reaffirming the importance of protective reserves for threatened species like spotted owls and other wildlife, as well as new studies describing improvements made under the protective elements of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy. Positive changes in watershed condition, for example, have taken place since the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 that have been driven mostly by road decommissioning and recovery of previously logged watersheds2. In addition, spotted owl numbers, while declining throughout most of the region, are faring better on federal lands managed under the protections of the Northwest Forest Plan than surrounding lands that are not.
“Erasing the protective land designations and weakening aquatic protections is a bit of a shell game,” DellaSala added. “There is nothing holding the Forest Service back from addressing climate change or new science within the constructs of the Northwest Forest Plan. The agency can already thin forests to address climate-related fire risks both inside and outside the reserve network.”
2 Lanigan, S.H. S.N. Gordon, P. Eldred, M. Isley, S. Wilcox, C. Moyer, and H. Andersen. 2012. Watershed condition status and trend: the Northwest Forest Plan first 15 years (1994-2008). USDA GTR-856, February 2012.
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