Forest Protection-The Olympic Peninsula

by: Posted on: December 14, 2011

By Peggy Bruton, Board of Directors, Olympic Forest Coalition

Editor’s Note:  Where has the discussion of logging and forest protection gone? With this piece by Peggy Bruton, a member of the Olympic Forest Coalition Board of Directors, coupled with our previous article entitled “Keeping Working Forests on the Landscape” by Cindy Mitchell of Washington Forest Protection Association, we hope to do our part to re-inspire this dialogue.  Specifically, this piece by Bruton gives us a nice historical introduction to the challenges and dynamics facing forest protection on the Olympic Peninsula.


Hmmm, whatever happened with those ancient forests and Spotted Owls on the Olympic Peninsula? From current press coverage, or the lack thereof, one might assume all’s been well resolved, but one would be mistaken.

The small fraction—less than 10 percent—of the Olympic peninsula’s original old growth forest, still standing in all its irreplaceable splendor, continues to face threats, and is still worth protecting, just like the endangered species that are tied to the forests’ health, like the struggling Spotted Owl. A group called OFCO (Olympic Forest Coalition) is on the job.

Rewind 20 years. Western Washington Federal District Court Judge William Dwyer had just shut down old growth timber sales on national forest lands throughout the Pacific Northwest pending implementation of an acceptable management plan for the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina).  The owl had recently been listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The media talked daily of the “War in the Woods,” the favorite script being timber families out of work and hungry, all because of a little bird that urban environmentalists wanted to protect. Many rural homes had yellow signs in their windows: “We Support the Timber Industry.”

In fact, it was the shift from human to mechanized labor and decades of boom-and-bust logging, driven by capricious market forces—not owls, which had wrought such distress on the timber towns. But never mind; owls vs. jobs made a better story.

It was never just about the birds themselves; the Northern Spotted Owl had been identified as an indicator species for forest health, living on the voles that live on and disperse mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi grow on, and sustain, the roots of the old growth trees, and so on.  If the owl lives, so does the forest.

The owls throughout their range in the Pacific Northwest had been seriously declining for decades as logging ate into ancient forest tracts.  The Olympic Peninsula’s remoteness kept its forests largely unscathed (except by periodic forest fires) until about 1900. However, massive logging on corporate lands and the quickening pace of timber extraction on public lands following World War II has resulted in serious fragmentation of old growth habitat.  (The peninsula’s major forest land owners are the federal government, with the 1400 square mile—slightly smaller than Rhode Island—Olympic National Park, no logging allowed, surrounded by the heavily logged Olympic National Forest; Washington State; tribal governments; and private, mainly corporate, landholders.)

By the late 1970s, it was clear that the pace of logging was unsustainable.  The dawn of the Reagan administration in the early ’80s brought on, instead, a redoubled, deliberate assault on remaining old growth stands, seen by reigning bureaucrats as decadent and worthless. The stated goal was to replace them as fast as possible with vigorous, young stands—that is, tree farms.

Environmentalists went to court, and the Dwyer injunction on old growth logging temporarily silenced the chainsaws. In 1994, the Clinton Forest Plan, resolving years of litigation, set logging limits on the Olympic at 15—20 million board feet per year, about 5 percent of the peak output a few decades earlier.

Relief was at hand, but not exactly; some will recall the agony of the “Salvage Rider,” a short-term timber gambit that promoted more old growth logging in the name of “forest health.”  Major efforts, however, had turned to the Herculean task of restoring devastated watersheds. OFCO was the catalyst for forming the 15-member Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative Coalition; Congressman Norm Dicks, then Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, whose district includes most of the Olympic Peninsula, found the necessary funding.

OFCO’s roots date back to 1989, when its progenitor, the Quilcene Ancient Forest Coalition, founded by Audubon member Alex Bradley and Sierra Club member Bob Crowley, began work to protect the ONF’s northeastern edge. In 2002, Alex and a small group of friends proposed a new organization (OFCO) that would cover the entire national forest. A few years later the organization began its state program, particularly focusing on the Olympic Experimental State Forest (OESF), about 270,000 acres managed by the Department of Natural Resources on the northwest corner of the Peninsula. The 1992 legislation establishing the OESF called for scientific management to integrate protection of Spotted Owls and other wildlife with generation of timber revenues for schools and other state trust land beneficiaries. OFCO has worked tirelessly to make sure the ecological values in the equation are honored.

OFCO then and now brings together concerned citizens who have always been in the forefront of forest protection.  Contrary to today’s relative calm, these forests still need advocates, and the onset of global climate change means that protecting them is more critical than ever.

The arguments over logging levels—in state and national forests alike—have never really been resolved, and probably never will be. Timber-oriented interests within government agencies still use the restoration mission—the “good for the forest” rationale—to justify increased logging.  There is continued effort to increase board foot production from the Olympic National Forest. Today, an unfriendly congressional majority favors legislation to greatly expand resource extraction; there is even talk of privatizing our national forests.

The latest threat, especially significant on the Olympic Peninsula, is the use of slash from logging operations, as well as live trees, as biomass fuel for energy production. Promoted as an alternative to burning after-logging slash piles on the hillsides, this technology once sounded “green” and sensible, but proposed facilities would create renewed logging pressure while putting public health at risk. The American Lung Association, for example, opposes development of this technology. The issue has brought OFCO together with local human health advocacy groups.

OFCO’s work, nearly all by volunteers, includes monitoring, public education, advocacy, negotiation and—when all else fails—litigation. Your support and participation is hugely welcome. Please visit www.olympicforest.org.


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