The Timber Wars grew so hot that they turned into a campaign issue in the 1992 presidential election. Based on a promise he made on the campaign trail, President Bill Clinton flew half his cabinet to Portland for a Forest Conference, where he sat down at a large table with loggers, mill owners, environmentalists and scientists to resolve the conflict. At the end, he directed 100 scientists to deliver a solution that would protect the forests and the owls, while also ensuring a steady supply of timber. The result was the Northwest Forest Plan, the most sweeping conservation plan in U.S. history—and one that created a massive shift in the US Forest Service’s primary focus: from resource extraction to ecosystem management.
This is the behind-the-scenes story of how a revolutionary land management plan was created, from a Capitol Hill bathroom-turned-office to a presidential lunch buffet to a basketball stadium full of scientists, who, for the first time, were given the keys to shape national policy.
Hosted and produced by OPB’s Aaron Scott in collaboration with 30 Minutes West (“Bundyville,” “Outside Podcast”), and with original music by the singer-songwriter Laura Gibson, “Timber Wars” is a seven-part podcast series from Oregon Public Broadcasting that tells the behind-the-scenes story of how a small group of activists and scientists turned the fight over ancient trees and the spotted owl into one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century. Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the NPR One app and most other podcast apps.
In addition to the podcast, OPB is releasing an accompanying e-newsletter series that combines the podcast with further OPB reporting to take readers through the history of this epic battle — and explores the ways it’s playing out still — in stories, images, videos and more. You can explore the series here.
Related: ‘Timber Wars’ episode 6: The backlash
Episode 5: The plan transcript
AARON SCOTT, HOST: By 1992, the Pacific Northwest was a mess. With most of the national forests under court-ordered lock and key, things were looking dire for logging companies and mills that depended on federal timber.
[ARCHIVE CLIP MONTAGE:
LOGGER: I’ve got about three more weeks worth of work and then I’m going to be done.
MILL OWNER: I can’t promise our people that we’ll have enough logs to run this plant for 6 months logs, a year. And they’re scared.
REPORTER: Since 1990, 67 Oregon mills have closed. More than 7000 mill workers have lost their jobs.]
AARON: But it’s not like environmentalists felt like they had won, because Congress had been very successful in effectively nullifying their court victories. They needed something to make those protections permanent, like a bill from Congress.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: Dozens of timber bills are now under consideration in congress. But the debate will probably get even nastier.]
AARON: So for maybe the first time in US history, a distinctly Northwest issue was front and center in a presidential election.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: Hundreds of mill workers packed the yard at Burl Lumber Company in White City. They gave the President a warm welcome. In return, he told them what they want to hear.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: It is time to make people more important than owls.]
AARON: George Bush and Bill Clinton both campaigned hard through timber country. Because, while Washington and Oregon might be solidly Democratic today, back then, both were swing states that had long favored republicans. And while Bush doubled down on timber, Clinton tried to strike a middle ground. This is him holding court in a mill worker’s backyard.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, BILL CLINTON: My view is that if we put this problem in the perspective of where we’re choosing people or the forest, then we’ve lost before we start.]
AARON: But then Clinton did something that took even his aides by surprise.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: He promised, if elected, to hold a timber summit to help ease the timber supply crisis.
CLINTON: I want to spend some time on it in the beginning of my term, not before an election.]
AARON: Clinton wasn’t supposed to make a promise. After all, this was a quagmire that had sucked down politicians on both sides for a decade. But whatever his intentions, it was a promise that was about to change the Northwest forever. Because unlike so many campaign promises, Clinton actually kept it.
AARON: From Oregon Public Broadcasting, this is “Timber Wars.” I’m your host, Aaron Scott. Today, the trees and the owls get chairs at the head of the dining table as America sits down for its political supper. And like many family suppers, there’s gonna be hurt feelings. Because that on-the-fly promise is about to turn into one of the most ambitious conservation plans ever attempted. But just because you mean well, doesn’t mean you end well.
AARON: And can you tell me that story of how they came to you?
JIM LYONS: Sure, sure.
AARON: This is Jim Lyons. Back in 1992, he was a staffer for the Agriculture Committee, working in the auguste halls of the US House of Representatives.
JIM: I shared an office, which was a converted men’s bathroom, with three other staff people, across…
AARON: Are we talking they’re still urinals on the wall or…
JIM: They had removed the urinals, but there was a bathroom above us and a bathroom below us.
AARON: So Jim’s sitting in his office one day shortly after Clinton got elected.
JIM: So a woman came back, she sat down chair next to me, and she introduced herself. Her name was Katie McGinty.
AARON: Katie McGinty was an environmental and energy advisor for Senator Al Gore. She would go on to become the chair of the White House’s Council of Environmental Quality.
JIM: She said, “I understand that you know something about spotted owls and old growth. I need your help.”
AARON: You know how we talked earlier about the paradigm shift towards seeing old growth forests as more than just a bunch of big dying trees, and wildlife as more than things to shoot? Well, Jim Lyons was one of the leading advocates for that shift in Washington DC.
JIM: She said, could you come down to the White House and help us figure out how to deal with this issue? The president’s made a commitment to bring people together to try to solve the problem. And you could really be helpful.
AARON: Jim said yes, and to punctuate the gravity of the moment, a toilet flushed upstairs, and Katie discovered the pipe she was absently leaning on was really the inner workings of American democracy.
JIM: And she kind of looked at me again, funny and said, OK, I’ll see you in the White House on Monday.
AARON: Their first task was to plan a summit in Portland to bring everyone together.
JIM: It was kind of a full on, you know, 12, 14, 15-hour day effort, because everybody wanted to be a part of the conference, and even the physical structure of the conference itself was, you know, critical to communicating how this young president was going to deal with complex and controversial issues.
AARON: So they made a lot of phone calls and took trips to Oregon and Washington to tour clear cuts and old growth. They met with all sorts of people on all sides to come up with the invite list. It was akin to planning the most important dinner party the NW had ever held.
JIM: The other thing I insisted on, was I wanted to make sure that the scientists who had been working on this for so long had a seat at the table. I wanted to make sure the president heard and learned what I had learned over a decade in working with these people.
AARON: At the time, as you all were setting this up, was there much precedent for the idea of a president, a vice president and half the cabinet flying to some part of the country to sit down with multiple stakeholders and actually try to solve a complicated problem?
JIM: Uh, no, no. I mean, I had no idea how big this would be. This was a lot of firepower aimed at dealing with this issue.
AARON: Maybe it’s fitting then, given how far-fetched it all seemed, that Clinton and his administration arrived in Portland on April Fool’s Day, 1993.
JIM: You know, this was like all of a sudden going from my, you know, my cubicle in the bathroom on Capitol Hill to the big leagues. So I was, I just wanted to make sure I got it right.
AARON: While the advance crews were transforming the Oregon Convention Center into a TV set, the city erupted in a dueling storm of protests—and actual rainstorms. Some 50,000 soggy environmentalists packed into a riverside park for a rally-turned-music fest.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: They were led by rock icons Neil Young, Kenny Loggins, and David Crosby.
DAVID CROSBY, SINGING: I got three trees still standing, you’re not going to get them, standing in the way.]
AARON: Not so far away, a smaller crowd of loggers and mill workers filled their own park
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: More than 200 Northwest sawmills closed for the day to allow workers to come to Portland.
WOMAN: We’ve gone to complete desperation of working people because of the political situation, and today there’s some hope again.]
AARON: Hopes, and fears, ran high for both sides. No one knew what to expect. Nothing quite like this had ever happened before. And it probably bears saying: it hasn’t really happened since.
The convention center, was set up like a play about a boardroom meeting. A giant wooden table was on a stage in front of a line of flags. The individual secretaries were introduced one by one: interior, agriculture, commerce, labor. They took seats mixed in with local speakers. And then:
[ARCHIVE CLIP, ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen, the president and vice president of the United States.]
AARON: Bill Clinton and Al Gore entered and sat down at the center of the table, facing the audience.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: As we begin this process, the most important thing we can do is to admit all of us to each other that there are no simple or easy answers. This is not about choosing between jobs and the environment, but about recognizing the importance of both.]
AARON: Jim took notes from the audience. There were three roundtables over the course of the day, each with a dozen speakers ranging from timber and union executives to pastors and grassroots environmentalists.
JIM: People presented their point of view. They had a very short time to do so, and then did their best to open and honestly engage in conversation, you know, triggered by questions from the president or from cabinet members.
AARON: You can probably anticipate the conversation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP MONTAGE OF FOREST CONFERENCE SPEAKERS:
…We can’t sacrifice the last remaining 10 percent of our old growth…
…We need healthy communities that can help take…
…If we don’t do something right now to protect the remaining….
…They deserve as much consideration as we’re lavishing upon a spotted owl.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: Let me ask you this…]
AARON: Clinton introduced every speaker, he listened, he asked questions and made connections.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: You remember two of the people in the last panel, the economists, talked about how important it was to develop locally based alternatives.]
AARON: Everyone I talked to who was at the conference said he was the smartest guy in the room – an instant forest expert.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: We talked about in the first panel about how difficult that was to do in small towns and rural areas.]
AARON: But for Jim, the moment that best captures the conference and what was about to come didn’t happen on stage at all. It happened during the lunch buffet backstage. He was the first one there, so he loaded up a plate and sat down at the table.
JIM: And then I went to grab a bite to eat, food on my fork. And then all of a sudden the curtain that I’d come through pulls back, and in walks the president and the vice president. So I just very slowly put my fork down, didn’t take a bite. And, and I kind of watched them, you know, and, they come over and they sat next to me. And they took a bite to eat and they said, hello. And I didn’t know what to say, so I said to the president, “what did you think of the morning, Mr. President?” And he said, he thought it was very good at, you know, that we covered a lot of ground and heard a lot of interesting perspectives.
And then before I could respond, he said to me, “you know, Jim, this is not an environmental problem.” He said, “you know, I worked with local officials in Arkansas on issues somewhat like this. And in the end, in many instances, the issue was change. There were communities and, um, in places where change was happening, and the people that lived in those communities and the people that represented them were doing their best to fight the change. The change was inevitable, but, um, but they were going to fight change for as long as they could. And I think that’s really what’s at the heart of this. This region is changing. It has long history, a great history, and a lot of culture. Um, and people are fearful of the changes that are coming their way.”
AARON: Gore agreed with Clinton, but then asked Jim when they were going to get to the questions of old growth, the spotted owl and salmon. He was the environmentalist to Clinton’s humanist.
JIM: So the only thing I could think to say to Vice President Gore was, “well, we’re all going to deal with that in the afternoon, you know, Mr. Vice President.” And I explained, “you know, we’re going to have this panel of scientists who have worked on these issues for a long time. The lead, uh, for the panel is a gentleman named Jack Ward Thomas.” So the president then kind of interrupted me and said, “so Jim, tell me about this guy, Jack Ward Thomas.”
AARON: Jack Ward Thomas was an elk biologist from La Grande, Oregon, with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. He headed up the government’s first scientific committee that tried to come up with a plan to protect the owl, and he would eventually become the first scientist to lead the Forest Service itself. But instead of going through his resume, Jim decided to tell Clinton a story Jack himself liked to tell.
JIM: I said, “you know, Jack has been working on this issue for a long time. Uh, for many, many years. It’s a very controversial issue, as you know, and, as a result of that, Jack’s gotten a lot of death threats. And he had, you know, one of his many long days and came home from the lab and went to crawl into bed with his wife, Margaret. And, you know, just as he turned the light off, the phone rang, and Jack answered the phone and some guy on the other end of the phone launches into a death threat to Jack. And Jack cuts him off mid-sentence and says, ‘listen, I don’t take death threats at home. If you want to threaten me, you call me at the office tomorrow. And the number is blahdy blahdy blah. And I’m in between eight five.’ And before Jack could hang up the phone, the guy on the other end of the line says, ‘excuse me, could you give me that number again?’” Well, the president cracked up. Gore just smiled and stared. And the president said, “I think I’m going to like this guy, Jack Ward Thomas.”
AARON: And so Clinton turned to Jack during the final round table.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: I would like to ask Jack ward Thomas how he would advise me to go forward crafting a forest plan that will keep all these folks talking to each other around this table.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, JACK WARD THOMAS: I’m sure people have been waiting breathlessly to hear what I have to say. This is not my forte.]
AARON: Jack Ward Thomas said we needed to be clear about whether the federal laws were intended to protect biodiversity, because that’s what they were in effect doing. But he said that it just wasn’t working to do it species by species. Instead, we needed to push the science forward to think about how to protect entire ecosystems.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, JACK: However, that approach is not going to be simple. It’s not going to be cheap. One of my heroes said, “ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they’re more complex than we can think.”]
AARON: You can see Clinton nodding thoughtfully as Jack makes his recommendation.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, JACK: That leads us to some caution and to be a little humble. There’re maybe not more than 100 or so people in the entire world geared up to really think about what ecosystem management means. I encourage you to convene a working group of those people as soon as possible to go to work to give us some idea of what ecosystem management might be at world, national, and local scales.]
AARON: The stakes were high for the president. It’s the reason his advisors had originally counseled him to steer clear of the issue altogether. Finding a solution that would please everyone was impossible, which meant he was going to piss off at least one side. Once again, his decision would surprise his aides.
JIM: There was no plan going in. Nothing, nothing was pre-cooked.
AARON: So Clinton decided to take Jack Ward Thomas’s advice: he would convene a working group of scientists capable of thinking on an ecosystem-wide scale.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: Clinton: I intend to direct the cabinet and the entire administration to begin work immediately to craft a balanced, a comprehensive, a long-term policy. And I will direct the cabinet to report back to me within 60 days to have a plan to end this stalemate. (Applause)]
JIM: The shocker was when he said, “and I planned to have a plan in place and get this resolved in 60 days.” I mean, at that point I was sitting on the aisle seat and Katie was sitting next to me, and I literally fell out of my chair. I was like, I looked at Katie, you know, one knee on the ground. And I said, “did I just hear that?” And she reached down, helped me get up. And she said, “yep, we’re going to meet in my office on Monday.”
AARON: As Jack Ward Thomas said, ecosystems are so complex, the human brain can’t hope to fully comprehend them. And yet here Clinton was asking them to do it for a landscape that covered the three states on the West Coast and included several different forest ecosystems with hundreds of unique species—and in just 60 days.
But they weren’t starting from scratch. In fact, this was something that had been building for several years across a string of committees that each tackled a piece of the problem. And you’ll never guess which scientific odd couple one of those committees brought together.
JERRY FRANKLIN: Hello.
NORM JOHNSON: Hello!
JERRY: Come on in.
AARON: You may remember Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin, the scientists who took us on the clear-cut road trip. This time, I went to meet them at Jerry’s house in Issaquah, Washington. Of course, you have to drive through a forest and up a mountain to reach it.
JERRY: Glad you didn’t have any trouble finding it!
AARON: Jerry was the guru of old growth, and Norm was the expert on calculating timber harvests. We sat down in Jerry’s family room.
AARON: Was there a moment for both of you where you realized, Oh my gosh, this is going to be a huge issue that is going to consume my life for many years to come?
NORM: We knew it was a whole new world for the management of these forests. It was a revolution.
AARON: This is Norm.
NORM: And I realized then that at least I was gonna always be identified with it. Yeah.
JERRY: Me too. What’s happened is we keep being dragged back into it. Voluntarily, mind you.
AARON: Jerry and Norm were first paired together two years before the forest conference by Jim Lyons. He had Congress invite them, Jack Ward Thomas, and the dean of Yale’s forestry school, to head what congress called the Scientific Panel on Late Successional Forest Ecosystems. But the timber industry, in an attempt to undermine it, started calling it the Gang of Four. And that’s what stuck. This was before Clinton’s summit, and we’re going to spend a little time here because it really shaped what would ultimately become Clinton’s plan, and, by extension, the backlash and violence to come.
Congress had basically given up hope that the Forest Service and other federal agencies could come up with a plan to protect the owl and the old growth, so they wanted the Gang of Four to try. One of the representatives in charge was Harold Volkmer. And he had what seemed like a simple request at their first meeting.
JERRY: And he looks up and he says, “you know, if you could just tell us where the good old growth is, we could solve this.” I thought for a minute and, well, you know, if that’s all you need, we could do that. Meanwhile, the other three members of the Gang of Four are sitting over there, and Jack Ward Thomas has tried to kick me, but he’s kicking Norm. You know, “what are you saying?!”
NORM: And Jack Ward Thomas knew Jerry had no idea how to do it. That was what the kicking was about.
AARON: So we have to emphasize this. This is 1991. A decade after Jerry published his first big report on old growth. And there still wasn’t any sort of official map or survey of how much old growth was left and where it was. The federal agencies still had their heads in the sand, hoping that if they didn’t acknowledge the importance of old growth, the problem would just, well, go away. But there was one more point to their instructions.
JERRY: My recollection is as we were leaving the room, we’re literally going out the door of this room that we’ve been eating lunch and, and Volkmar says, “and don’t forget the damn fish! We don’t want some fish blowing us out of the water after we’ve got this resolved.”
AARON: Suddenly, it wasn’t just about owls and old growth anymore. Now they had to account for salmon and streams. And they had to do it across an entire landscape. They had to connect more dots than any one expert could study. That meant bringing in more scientists. Binders full of scientists. So many scientists that getting them all in the same room required a really big room.
NORM: Yeah. Oh yeah. I hired the coliseum, the Portland Coliseum at the time: 10,000 square feet of space.
AARON: The Memorial Coliseum was the basketball arena where the Trail Blazers played. Where all the building’s meeting rooms bear the names of timber companies—the Weyerhaeuser Room, the International Paper Company room, the US Plywood Corporation Room. These were the champions of Portland at the time: the big corporate donors.
So Jerry’s plan was to invite foresters, silviculturalists and biologists from all the national forests and Bureau of Land Management districts in the Northwest to the coliseum.
JERRY: And with each national forest we’ll get a table, and we’ll arrange the tables as the geographically arranged, so that the Willamette is next to the Deschutes and next to the Siuslaw and next to the Umpqua and next to the Mount Hood.
AARON: That way, all these experts who never really talked to their neighbors would start to work together. The goal was to basically assemble all these landscape pieces like a puzzle, there on the coliseum floor.
NORM: Just a second. Okay. That’s a wonderful story. But they would not have showed up here for a moment. If it was just Jerry invited them, they would not have been permitted. You know, this was high stakes stuff, and they were worried about Franklin.
AARON: That’s because they wanted to log that old growth, not protect it. So Congress had to send a letter to the agencies demanding that their scientists and technicians show up. And around 120 did. And they started to map and rank the old growth, for the very first time. And to assure they did it without undue influence, the Gang of Four barred any agency supervisors from showing up, and the few who did had to wear orange hunting vests.
JERRY: We got the mapping job done.
NORM: In six days. One less than Jerry had estimated!
JERRY: The amount of time it took God to create the earth.
AARON: So now that they had maps of old growth and owl habitat, it was time to add the fish. So they invited the well-known aquatic scientists Gordon Reeves and Jim Sedell to identify key salmon watersheds, and they discovered there was a lot of overlap.
NORM: Jim and Gordy, they’re proposing radical changes in how we would provide for conservation of fish in aquatic systems. And the notion that there’s a crisis here and we need a radical change, hadn’t yet surfaced.
AARON: Because, it turns out, all those things that Jerry and the other scientists discovered that set old growth apart—things like big fallen logs and rotting wood—it turns out they’re also essential for salmon. They cool streams and make the pools that fish need for shelter and laying their eggs. Plus all that rotting wood and needles feed insects that feed the fish. Fun fact: when the fish die, they move nutrients from the ocean into the forest.
So suddenly the owls had another animal to back them up on team old growth.
NORM: When they were done, John Gordon said in this his deep voice, “This will change everything.” Because yeah, we’ve got this owl and we have to deal with it, but people care about fish, people catch fish for a living, people catch fish recreationally. And that totally changes, and it very much enlarges the dimensions of this issue as compared to owls versus timber. That changes everything.
AARON: So now that they had maps of owl and salmon habitat, they could start to calculate the likelihood that each would survive at different levels of logging.
It’s hard to overemphasize just how unusual and seismic this was. Scientists rarely got a seat at the planning table. Much less a chance to think holistically about Washington, Oregon, and northern California. But their recommendations would also have consequences.
NORM: This is gonna really change and wreck a lot of people’s lives. We knew that, you know. It’s great to dream about conservation strategies, but we are the people who come in and say, well, this is what it’s going to cost, and the costs are going to be dramatic. We knew that by that time, and we knew once this is out there, there’s just no turning back.
AARON: So they rushed to finish and write everything up. And they flew to Washington and presented it. And the scope of it shocked the members of the congressional committees into silence. After all, the Forest Service had reassured Congress for years that we were logging at a sustainable rate.
NORM: This is shattering, that’s all it was. It’s shattering of an old model. It’s a model that I had believed in too for quite a while. And it was just shattered. And the idea that sustainable yield could protect all resources was gone.
AARON: So it signaled that the way things have been done will no longer going to work?
NORM: End of an era. We gotta do something different. And we’re, still to this day, the agencies are trying to figure out what does that something different mean.
AARON: But not everyone was upset. There were congress people who supported finding a way to protect the owls and salmon—primarily congress people from places without a timber lobby, like Indiana. So the Agriculture Committee put together ancient forest legislation based on the report. But then the speaker of the house, Tom Foley, killed it. He might’ve been a democrat, but he also had a lot of timber in his eastern Washington district.
JERRY: He did not want the house to have to vote on it. And so that was the end of the congressional effort to resolve the problem.
AARON: But it wasn’t all for naught. 120 scientists spread out on the coliseum floor laid the groundwork for the plan that would come from President Clinton’s mandate two years later.
So, that’s where we’re going next.
If there were only a handful of people capable of comprehending entire ecosystems, Jack Ward Thomas wanted them all. He gathered 100 scientists, including Jerry and Norm and people from all the other scientific committees that had tried to solve this problem, and they sequestered themselves in a skyscraper in downtown Portland. Each group—the owl people, the fish people, the invertebrate people—they all came equipped with their own ideas for what areas needed to be protected. But they were mostly working from plans developed under the Forest Service’s previous guidance to minimize the effects on timber production.
JERRY: And they didn’t have the best of the old growth. And we had identified that in the Gang of Four exercise. And by damn, we were going to get the best of the old growth or I was going to scream and holler and be buried with it.
AARON: The scientists came up with a number of options, but leaving the best of the old growth on the table meant they had to lock up pretty much everything else. And that was a problem. Because one of Clinton’s main directives had been to deliver a sustainable supply of timber. The general idea was at least a billion board feet. And according to Norm’s calculations, only two of the options got there, but they didn’t ensure the survival of the threatened animals. So when they went back to DC to present to the administration, it didn’t go so well.
NORM: We met in the Indian treaty room in the old executive office building. And when we went back there, that’s what they really hammered me on: Why, why?!
AARON: Why were all the harvest levels so low?
NORM: And pretty soon I see Franklin over in the corner of the room rolling up his sleeves, pacing back and forth, giving his talk to himself (laughs).
AARON: Jerry’s talk boiled down to the idea that they could do better. Let them try one more time. And so he went back to that original Gang of Four plan from Memorial Coliseum and focused on the places where the owl and the salmon and the best old growth overlapped. And they put those areas mostly off limits to logging.
But that wasn’t enough to protect the owl, so Jerry drew on theories he’d been developing called New Forestry—theories that many environmentalists hated. The idea was you could speed up the development of old growth characteristics by selectively logging younger forests in ways that imitated forest fires. Big trees survive, smaller trees get burned. Or cut. Jerry was inspired by the 1902 Yacolt Burn, in Oregon and Washington.
JERRY: This forest that burned in 1902 was functioning as suitable owl habitat 80 years later. And it was because of the legacy of old trees and snags and downed wood that had been carried over.
AARON: That 80-year cut off has since become a legal magic number. It’s basically the dividing line in the NW between which trees can be logged, and which can’t.
NORM: That’s, this is so pivotal to everything that’s happened to this day. There’s no more important criteria out in the Northwest Forest Plan than that one.
AARON: The plan Jerry arrived at, called Option 9, split the national forests into several categories, but suffice it to say that more than half the landscape went into reserves. And what was left was free for logging—about a third of the original supply. Including some old growth.
For Jim Lyons, who had long promoted giving the keys of the forest to scientists, it was groundbreaking.
JIM: It was the first ever complete and comprehensive science-based approach to managing large landscapes, maybe in the world.
AARON: Jim compares it to a jigsaw puzzle. Up till now, we’d pulled apart the Northwest’s forests piece by piece, timber sale by timber sale, species by species, without ever looking at the full picture. Now we were looking at what was left of the puzzle and trying to figure out how to put it back together. This was the culmination, then, of this paradigm shift of seeing forests as complex ecosystems, instead of tree farms.
And by Norm’s estimates, it would deliver slightly more than the billion board feet of timber a year that Clinton’s administration had asked for. But still, that was only a quarter of the trees we’d been cutting before the spotted owl injunctions. So the president didn’t exactly sound excited, when he announced the Northwest Forest Plan on July 1, 1993.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, CLINTON: I can only say, that as with every other situation in life, we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt. Had this crisis been dealt with years ago, we might have a plan with a higher yield and more protected areas. We’re doing the best we can with the facts as they exist in the Pacific Northwest.]
AARON: The plan included some money to retrain timber workers and to help timber communities transition into new areas like recreation. Nonetheless, Clinton’s announcement was defensive, because he well knew what was coming next.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: President Clinton predicted his Northwest Forest Plan would not make everyone happy, and he was right about that. From environmentalists to residents of timber towns, no one seems to like it.]
AARON: For environmentalists, the fact that the plan didn’t protect all the old growth was a nonstarter.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, REPORTER: Environmental interest groups blast the president’s plan for loopholes they say are big enough to drive a log truck through.
ENVIRONMENTALIST: The president’s plan, although well intentioned, we believe hovers on the edge of ecologic credibility. It continues to compromise what little old growth remains in the Pacific Northwest.”
AARON: Environmentalists might have gnashed their teeth, but to the timber and labor side of things, it felt like Clinton had clearly chosen sides. This is a union leader at a press conference they held after the unveiling.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, UNION LEADER: This direction clearly indicates a surrender to the political left-wing activists in Washington. For now the president has abandoned the core principles he campaigned on.]
AARON: Some people say the sign of a good compromise is that nobody leaves happy. And that was certainly the case here. But for the loggers and mill workers and truck drivers and union carpenters and everyone who depended on that supply of timber, it was a feeling of outright betrayal many of these guys were longtime union democrats.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, UNION LEADER: President Clinton looked us straight in the eye and said, “I hear your concerns. I will resolve this in a fair and balanced way.” Today, President Clinton blinked. By adopting Option Nine, the president has abandoned us.]
AARON: But in many ways, the Northwest Forest Plan was crafted to make just one person happy: Judge William Dwyer. The man who had locked up all the timber until the government could produce a plan that insured the survival of owls and other old growth species. And after some changes to the plan, changes that would come back to haunt it, Dwyer signed off. If just barely.
AARON: In some alternate universe, this is where this story could have ended. A grand compromise grounded in science that preserved most of the remaining old growth, but kept enough timber flowing to keep the mills open.
But we’ll never really know. Because this revolution in how we managed forests was followed immediately by the Republican Revolution of 1994. Suddenly, the GOP controlled the Senate and the House of Representatives. They could pass new laws that threw conservation plans out the window, and they did. All Clinton could do was veto. And he didn’t.
As we’ve learned, Congress was really good at finding ways to keep the chainsaws running. What wouldn’t become clear until later, however, was that this was becoming a conflict that no one could win. The fight would continue, and everyone would lose. That’s next time.
“Timber Wars” is reported and written by me, Aaron Scott, with editing by Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, Ed Jahn and David Steves.
This series is produced by me, and Peter and Robbie, of 30 Minutes West.
Our music is from Laura Gibson.
Robbie Carver does our Sound design and Steven Kray handles the final mix.
Our fact checker is Matt Giles.
Legal oversight by Rebecca Morris.
And our executive producer is Ed Jahn.
Timber Wars is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Our Science and Environment team ranges all over the northwest to cover the breaking news and big issues that matter. And we can only do it with the support of our members. Join us. Please become a sustaining member today at opb.org/pod.
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