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, Im 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.”
Clinton also vowed his administration would produce a balanced, long-term comprehensive plan to resolve the decade-long controversy over logging old-growth forests.
While the conference convened inside the Oregon Convention Center, more than 2,000 timber industry supporters rallied at nearby Waterfront Park. A similar number of environmental activists pushing for the protection of old-growth forests also gathered to voice their concerns.
“The conference was the peak — it was pivotal,” said event participant Andy Kerr, 57, of Ashland, then the conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council. The ONRC would later meld into Oregon Wild.
“To this day the plan is recognized by conservation biologists as the greenest landscape conservation plan proposed by any government in the world,” he said.
Clinton’s participation in the event was crucial, he said.
“The guy is extremely smart and charismatic,” Kerr said. “I think he was fascinated by the timber issue in the Pacific Northwest. It appealed to him politically and intellectually.”
On the other side of the debate, participant Jim Geisinger agreed the conference was an important moment in time. Back then, he was president of the Northwest Forestry Association, which represented wood-product manufacturers that depended largely on public lands for timber. Now 59, Geisinger is currently executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers.
“The conference was a positive experience at that moment,” Geisinger said. “We had all the interest groups gathered around the table. And there were obviously people there who could make important decisions on managing our public forestlands.
“We had taken the president at his word when he said he wanted a solution that would balance the economic needs of our state while protecting the environment,” he added.
The conference was vital in beginning the process to chop through the logjam, added participant Julie Norman, then president of the Ashland-based Headwaters environmental group. Norman, now 64, currently works at the Geos Institute in Ashland, a climate-change education organization that evolved out of Headwaters.
She recalled the logging injunctions had been in place for more than a year, stopping timber sales on both U.S. Bureau of Land Management and national forest lands. Headwaters had been one of the principal plaintiffs in a lawsuit that halted logging in northern spotted owl habitat on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest until the federal government came up with a plan to protect fish and wildlife.
“There was a broad spectrum of views represented at the conference, and President Clinton was a great listener,” she said.
University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin, now 76, a noted forest ecologist and a member of the “God squad,” was one of the scientists who spoke to the ecological issue at the conference.
“It was the experience of a lifetime,” Franklin said. “Clinton deserves a lot of credit for having done it. That was an impressive accomplishment to have everyone together to vent their views.
“I don’t know that anything had been done like it before.”
Thomas, who would be appointed chief of the U.S. Forest Service by Clinton before the year was out, agreed.
Known for getting straight to the point, the scientist recalled he was as candid as he could be in his presentation on the ecological perspective at the end of the session.
“I said, Mr. President, this is all up to you. You’ve got to make the call on how this is resolved,’” Thomas said. “It is firmly in your lap. You’ve got to make the decision now.’
“When it ended, I remember being overwhelmed with his eloquence but I can’t remember what the hell he said.”
At the end of the day, Clinton told those assembled that he had been impressed by what he had heard.
“I will never forget what I’ve heard today — the stories, the pictures,” the president said. “In a funny way, even when you were disagreeing, every one of you was a voice for change.”
He also made a decision shortly afterward on how to address the problem.
“His decision was to call me and put me in charge,” Thomas said.
He was informed he could hire whomever he wanted to help build the plan without regard to budgetary constraints.
“When I accepted this, I got a promise from the president there would be absolutely no influence from the administration or anyone,” Thomas said.
“And there was zero — nada, none — political pressure involved in our discussions,” he added. “The president made that promise and he kept it. I really appreciated that.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.