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  • Forest plan seen as split decision

    Commitment, Clinton involvement marked historic meeting
  • Jack Ward Thomas remembers precisely what was on his mind while waiting to make his presentation at the historic 1993 Northwest Forest Conference in Portland.
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  • Jack Ward Thomas remembers precisely what was on his mind while waiting to make his presentation at the historic 1993 Northwest Forest Conference in Portland.
    "I was thinking, 'I'm sure glad I'm not the president of the United States right now,' " he said.
    For seven hours, President Bill Clinton's ear would be bent by 50 people representing the timber industry, environment, science and Northwest communities during the conference, held April 2, 1993, in Portland.
    Hailing from diverse places such as Ashland and Forks, Wash., each had a different idea of how to end the timber wars that had raged for more than a decade. Thomas was one of the last speakers to address the president.
    The conference marked the first and only time in Oregon history that the nation's president, vice president and five Cabinet members gathered in the state.
    "It was a very long day," remembered Bruce Babbitt, 74, who was then secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior. "The lights were really hot as we sat there. The glare from them was incredible. It was like sitting out in the Sonoran Desert in July."
    But the former governor of Arizona said it was worth every minute.
    "The conference had some real magic to it," he said. "To have the president and vice president there isn't something that normally happens when there is an environmental dispute."
    Out of the conference eventually emerged the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, aimed at protecting threatened northern spotted owls and old-growth habitat while setting harvest goals on federal timberlands in the region for the next two decades. Clinton would appoint Thomas to lead the group that produced the plan, arguably one of the most influential resource management guidelines of the era.
    In early spring 1993, Thomas, now 78 and retired in Florence, Mont., was the top research biologist in the U.S. Forest Service, heading the agency's Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande.
    He was also a member of what was known as the "God squad," one of four scientists empowered to override the Endangered Species Act as part of their recommendations to resolve the northern spotted owl issue.
    "We had looked at the old-growth issue and made some recommendations before the conference," Thomas recalled. "Those recommendations were promptly overlooked. So everything was shutting down."
    He was referring to mill closures related to reduced harvests on federal forestlands, largely the result of legal battles over protection of the spotted owl.
    During the 1992 election, then-President George H.W. Bush indicated he would do away with the ESA while challenger Clinton vowed to do something about the logjam over the spotted owl, Thomas said.
    "Clinton said he would convene this conference as soon as he was elected," Thomas said. "So he was fulfilling what he promised in the campaign. Reflecting on it politically, it was a wise thing to do."
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