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Plan's eventual effectiveness gets mixed reviews from participants

Twenty years later, participants contacted by the Mail Tribune uniformly said they were impressed by the Northwest Forest Conference, but their opinions differed widely on its outcome.

"The (1994 Northwest Forest) plan was not green enough," said environmentalist Andy Kerr. "The owl is still on its way toward extinction. At a slower rate, but still on its way. Salmon stocks still need help. Marbled murrelets are still in trouble. The plan has done a lot, but it's not doing enough."

Kerr, who now serves as a consultant for numerous public-lands conservation groups nationwide, described it as a generational fix.

"The plan resolved a political crisis more than it resolved the ecological crisis," he said. "It resolved it politically for one generation."

He believes another timber war is brewing on U.S. Bureau of Land Management timberlands known as the Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands.

"We are now having essentially a mini-timber war regarding those O&C timberlands in Western Oregon," he said. "It's essentially a little version of what was the great timber war of 20 years ago. It's smaller, it's muted, but it's a timber war."

Timber industry representative Jim Geisinger is also disappointed in the conference's outcome, albeit for different reasons.

"In hindsight, it didn't resolve a single issue," he said.

The timber industry believed the 1994 plan would provide an annual harvest from federal lands of slightly more than 1 billion board feet each year, he said.

"If the plan was implemented as it was intended, there would be more people working now," he said. "Both the forests and mills would be healthier than they are.

"Of course, history has shown we have never come anywhere near that number, only 400-to-500 million in any given year."

That figure didn't change during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, he said.

"It will take more political courage than I've seen from anyone to change it," he said. "Appeals and litigation are what still dictate the management of our federal forests. The bottom line is the system is still broken.

"The conference didn't meet our expectations," he said. "Something needs to change, not just for the industry but for the forest itself. We are burning up more of our forest every year than we have ever logged. Ever."

But environmental activist Julie Norman believes the conference made a historic difference.

"I'll always be grateful it happened," she said. "It helped us eventually get out of a stuck place and move ahead."

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, lawsuits were employed because there was no alternative, she said.

"We were seeing a lot of our environmental laws being broken," she said. "The plan finally established a new set of marching orders. The Northwest Forest Plan is something we all should be proud of."

Forest ecologist Jerry Franklin also believes the 1994 plan made a breakthrough, although he feels it would be more successful had it been better received.

"It went a long way in developing a workable solution," he said. "But it was supposed to be very adaptive. Remember, this was a group of scientists who put it together. We knew we didn't know everything so we wanted it to be flexible and adaptive."

But no one else wanted a flexible plan, he said.

"Not the courts, agencies, industry, environmental community — none of the participants wanted to take advantage of the adaptive aspect," he said. "It was very disappointing that nobody but the scientists want it to be flexible.

"As scientists, we were pretty naive to think others would approach it in an open-minded fashion and make it work," he said.

Moreover, he believes there was resistance to any plan providing a solution that followed a middle ground.

"Many of the stakeholders never had any intention of making it work," he said. "They didn't then and they don't intend to today. They don't want the middle-ground solution."

Jack Ward Thomas, then a research biologist who would become head of the U.S. Forest Service, wasn't happy with the way the plan was implemented, either.

"I would make the point the flexibility in the plan wasn't fully followed," he said. "It was designed to be dynamic."

Clinton had instructed the scientists to take an ecosystem approach in developing the plan, he said.

"If you are looking for an ecosystem approach, it was a rational approach," he said.

However, science only provides constraints and advice for management, he said, adding that a biologist should not be expected to answer political or economic questions.

"The option that Clinton decided on was a kind of split-the-baby decision," Thomas said. "It wasn't the best for the owl, and it sure as hell was not best for the timber industry. Maybe it is time for a checkup."

But former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt defends both the plan and the outcome, noting they're far better than the decade of controversy and injunctions.

"The resolution in terms of the forest plan is a really important moment in our environmental and forest management history," he said. "The plan has proven to be a sound, enduring accomplishment.

"I don't think it needs any changes," he added. "It would be ill-advised to tinker with it and risk the possibility of going back to the timber wars. It has aged very well."