The old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest contain a unique assortment of large, old trees – some dominated by Douglas-firs and western hemlocks, generally 350 to 750 years old – others dominated by Sitka spruce and western hemlock, along the Pacific Coast – and at higher elevations in the Cascade Mountains, true fir and hemlock old-growth forests.
The Pacific Northwest old-growth forests are found only in parts of western North America – the area from southeast Alaska and southwest British Columbia, down through western Washington, western Oregon, and the edge of northern California; and from the Pacific Ocean inland to the crest of the Cascade Mountains.
Within the US, old-growth forests are found on federal forest land within western Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
Impact on Northern Spotted Owl
Numerous species occur within these forests, but much attention has been drawn to the northern spotted owl, a wide-ranging species closely associated with old-growth forests that was listed in 1990 as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of the U.S. Department of the Interior under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the Pacific Northwest, there are 57 million acres of land within the range of the owl, and 24.5 million acres of that area are federally managed.
When the northern spotted owl was listed under the ESA, the primary reason FWS decided it needed protection was the loss of habitat due to timber harvest. In the years after the northern spotted owl was listed, the federal agencies conducting timber harvest programs - principally the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - consulted with the FWS regarding timber harvest to ensure that their actions would not be likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the northern spotted owl.
One of the difficulties the agencies encountered in these early consultations was how to evaluate individual timber projects and loss of owl habitat with a species that ranged widely in dispersal and foraging activities. Fragmentation of habitat due to timber harvest was a major concern and owl experts recommended that maintaining large blocks of habitat with opportunity for dispersal was critical to owl conservation.
Litigation and the Northwest Forest Plan
Concern over the owl’s status on federal lands resulted in litigation. In the early 1990's several court injunctions were entered, shutting down much of the timber harvest throughout federal lands in the Pacific Northwest. This, resulted in great controversy and tension between the timber harvest community and groups seeking to protect the owl. A key issue raised in litigation was the lack of a conservation plan for the owl that would provide for forest management across its entire range.
In 1994, the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to provide for “Management of Habitat for Late-Successional and Old-Growth Forest Species Within the Range of the Northern Spotted Owl.”
- This plan, which was a set of standards and guidelines, was implemented across 26 forests in the Pacific Northwest by the Forest Service and BLM.
- Critical to the plan was its focus on a comprehensive ecosystem management strategy. Of the more than 24 million acres subject to the plan, 30% were dedicated to late-successional reserves protected from timber harvest and providing large blocks of habitat for the owl and other species, combined with additional reserves along riparian corridors. These protected areas were in addition to areas already administratively withdrawn from timber harvest.
- Timber harvest areas were also identified, so that a supply of timber would be provided.
The Northwest Forest Plan was recognized by the courts as “developed on sound scientific analysis as an effective method to conserve the spotted owl,” and as a “unique land-management plan [that] is not an ordinary government land-management strategy, instead, the history and care in its creation bespeak the massive effort that went into its creation.” Gifford Pinchot Task Force v USFWS, 378 F.3d 1059 (9th Cir. 2004).
However, the Plan has nevertheless been a target of frequent litigation, and no year has passed without significant court rulings regarding the myriad aspects of the Plan. Litigation has also occurred over recovery planning and critical habitat designation for the owl. Under the ESA, FWS designates habitat essential for conservation as “critical habitat” which then triggers consultation on federal actions in that habitat. In December 2012, FWS issued a revised critical habitat designation for the spotted owl, which is presently the subject of a lawsuit in district court.