The Northwest Forest Region- Unfinished Business but Room for Improvement

This is a written piece that I submitted in my Geography and Policy class, as we’ve been learning about the expansion Westward and the management of federal resources. I thought I would repost since it’s relevant to sustainable resources and critiques of models and resources out there. If you’re unfamiliar about the forest issues in the Northwest region, their is a great timeline from High Country News. Thanks for reading and sharing!

Nathan Rice’s article, “Seeking Balance in Oregon’s Timber Country” (2013), provides a clear summary of the interwoven issues present throughout the Northwest region. While reading a majority of the articles on High Country News, I kept having the same reoccurring thought: “Why does the government have to separate and deal with issues and solutions in such compartmentalized ways?” By reviewing the Northwest’s history in land use decision-making, political intervention, and economic strife, it’s clear to see that regional efforts have not been as successful as hoped but still leaves room for improvement.

Wilkinson discusses the five “Lords of Yesterday”, which were five political-economical decisions made by the U.S. government, and are all still in existence today in some form or another. These five lords treated land and water management all as separate entities with no relation. Mutual benefits and consequences of these five lords and where they overlap were only considered after problems became too apparent through environmental and political pressures. Even after science could prove that land use affected water use and vice versa, approaches to mitigate problems were often kept separate, which only exacerbated problems.

Though the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan (NFWP) in the 1990s was a critical attempt towards greater regional resource management, “it has proven more successful in stopping actions harmful to conservation of old-growth forests and aquatic systems than in achieving restoration goals and economic and social goals” (Thomas et al., 2005). In other words, it has made progress but has stopped short at improving the interconnected and mutually interdependent relations amongst the many geographical regions involved. This has left these regions’ economies and socio-political beliefs in a state of turmoil which has reinforced negative relationships with the federal government and private enterprises, as well as how to approach environmental conservation.

Platt gives the history from 1970 to 1998, where 26 separate acts and amendments were passed in the name of environmental protection. Many of these acts have been hugely successful, while some have clearly been defeated and are practically nonexistent due to their inability to work within already existing laws in a functional manner. This is more common that not; especially in land use planning laws. For example, comprehensive plans are made often to delegate land use approaches, but usually require zoning ordinances to be changed in order to reflect these appropriate uses. If the zoning cannot be changed, then the comprehensive plan loses its luster and validity overtime.

In “Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story 1940-2000”, Robbins gave examples of the “new” environmental laws throughout the 70s and 80s along with their lawsuits that often resulted in long circular arguments. The use of pesticides and management of old growth forests in Oregon, though seen as separate issues at the time, were ultimately related. After the clear-cutting of old growth trees, pesticide usage prohibited the natural growth of forests, which in turn prevented adequate re-growth of tree varieties that supported the spotted owl. Today after years of protecting old growth forests through the NWFP initiatives, the barred owl has moved into the areas where spotted owls were meant to repopulate. Could it be the forest conservation practices over the last 20 years have allowed for a barred owl population boom? Furthermore, could heavy use of pesticides throughout the 70s have left the spotted owl populations in such a state of genetic vulnerability that their offspring could not possibly make a comeback?

Why has the U.S. continued this approach of separating and compartmentalizing issues and responses of natural resource conservation and sustainable use? It’s generally accepted through science and past political interventions that sustainable use requires looking at the larger scale and accepting its many components as interrelated and dependent on each other. Why is it that solutions are drawn up as separate policy proposals and picked apart so much until they are only minor stand-alone Band-Aid approaches? This is why I am in my dual degree of regional planning and public policy. This country cannot continue making policies that are decided and implemented in a vacuum-sealed fashion.

With the world’s current state in climate change, this compartmentalization approach is also apparent in our international policies in how we mitigate and adapt our resource use and future development. If stakeholders only consider some of the facts and decide which are relevant, rather than looking at the entire picture (the good and the bad) and all of the interconnections, then we will continue to over-use and under-protect natural resources and further degrade the planet. Thomas et al. suggest that focusing on activities that “contribute to all facets of sustainability” is imperative and must be met with “a better balance of short-term and long-term risk” (2005). I agree in that future management must consider social implications of surrounding communities and their reliance on these resources not just for physical consumption, but also economic viability, ecological resilience and political strength.

The ability to consider all of the dynamic facets involved in current management and future sustainability of the Northwest forests region is critical and imperative. Accountability and evaluation should also be strived for to further the NWFP, in order to measure how effectively goals are being met, review strategies and allow for changes if necessary. I believe that as a sustainable planner, decisions cannot be made without considering all of the small parts of the bigger picture. Unfortunately, there is a careful balance that is hard to strike between humans and the environment. Nonetheless, we should always strive for balance at every opportunity we have in sustaining both ecology and the human experience.

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