The World's Largest Ecosystem Management Plan: The Northwest Forest Plan After a Quarter-Century

Contributor Roles

Susan Jane Brown, Wildlands Program Director & Staff Attorney, Western Environmental Law Center; Chelsea Stewart-Fusek, J.D. candidate 2022, Lewis & Clark Law School

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Environmental Law



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Env't L.


For decades, the public forests of the Pacific Northwest were subject to widespread clearcutting of its old-growth trees as part of a federal policy promoting industrial logging. That era came to end in the early 1990s, due to court injunctions enforcing environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act, a response to diminishing old-growth dependent species like the northern spotted owl. Fulfilling a campaign promise to resolve the contentious issue by protecting both wildlife habitat and a logging industry important to local communities, President Clinton and his administration conducted a remarkable 1993 symposium on the economics and science of preserving rapidly disappearing habitat for ESA-listed species like the northern spotted owl and several salmonids. The result was the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan (NFP), widely recognized as the largest commitment to ecosystem management worldwide. Somewhat surprisingly, the NFP is still in effect over a quarter-century later, despite determined efforts to eviscerate it. This article examines the NFP, its antecedents, provisions, court interpretations, and future. In many respects, despite persistent controversy over the legal underpinnings of the NFP, the plan has provided substantial protection for Northwest’s public forests, and – although it did not end all public timber harvests – largely ended harvesting of public old-growth forests. Moreover, the plan’s aquatic protection strategy has proved quite effective and worthy of emulation elsewhere. Although the Bush administration’s repeated efforts to terminate the plan failed, the Obama administration removed about ten percent of the federal forests subject to the plan from its reach, substantially undermining its ecological premises. The courts have so far sustained these removals, casting a pall of uncertainty over efforts to update the NFP to reflect current challenges posed by wildfires and climate change. This article suggests that the goals of a revised NFP should be linked to the role that federal public Pacific Northwest forests can play in the United States’ international obligations to combat climate change. We recommend a number of changes to the NFP, including ending both post-fire salvage sales and the logging of mature and old-growth forests. To accommodate these changes, we suggest providing a “just transition” for affected rural communities and increased flexibility concerning the boundaries of protective terrestrial reserves in the southern reaches of the plan. We maintain that despite lingering uncertainty about its scope of coverage, the NFP can continue to provide the signature example of landscape planning worldwide.

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Co-author Chelsea Stewart-Fusek is a student at Lewis & Clark Law School.