Conservation Column - Which Words Will Prevail?

“Words are the bricks of our world and they have the power to change it.”

—Enock Maregesi, “East Africa: Writing for Kiswahili Language Revolution,” The Citizen (2016)

So far it’s just words, but for those who favor more protective conservation measures, the new forest management plan looks like a giant step backwards. In August, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a new Resource Management Plan (RMP) for Western Oregon. Unfortunately, the approved plan will replace the carefully considered, science-based 1994 Northwest Forest Plan on millions of acres. It reduces streamside protective buffers by half or more, a loss of 300,000 acres of streamside reserves and a threat to the clean, cool water needed by salmon and other fish and wildlife. An increase in road construction and off-road vehicle access will further fragment and degrade habitat. Logging levels will increase by 37 percent. In the nearly half a million acres managed for timber, logging will be of the more destructive clear-cut variety.

The proposed plan includes 2.6 million acres of federally managed public forests. The recreational opportunities of this public land; the essential habitat for  fish, birds and other wildlife; and the many ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, climate change mitigation,  and landslide and erosion control, should not be traded away for short-term profit. Many people in federal agencies have worked for years to find programs that balance the demand for logging with environmental values. The direction of the new proposal puts that strategy and our forests at risk.

Words do matter, and many people have spoken out. An impressively large number of environmental groups and private citizens provided comments about the proposed plan. They expressed concern about the resiliency of the forests to the increased logging, the loss of habitat, the effects of climate change, and the pollution of the waters. Although a few aspects of the varied concerns were incorporated into the proposal, most of the many well-reasoned comments submitted in response to the proposal were barely addressed. The official BLM protest resolution report did little to address the merits or substance of the ideas. For example, after several organizations raised concerns about the consequences of removal from management under the Northwest Forest Plan (such as the loss of protection for streamside riparian reserves), the wording of the response was not an explanation about how these areas will be protected from harm (a response one would logically expect.)  Instead it reads: “The Northwest Forest Plan itself is not a statute or regulation to which the BLM must comply.”

Another example: The federal government has published several documents outlining strategies to deal with climate change. Here are some directives from the Department of the Interior Climate Change Adaptation Plan:

  •         Consider climate change when developing or revising management plans
  •         Maintain key ecosystem services
  •         Reduce non-climate stressors that interact with climate change impacts (e.g., pollution, invasive species, habitat fragmentation, and human activities contributing to resource scarcity or degradation of natural resources)
  •         Develop management-level decision tools to incorporate carbon management and carbon accounting into routine resource management actions
  •         Protect diversity of habitat, communities, and species

These words sound pretty good to me. Yet, when it comes to incorporating these ideas into the BLM management plan, this reply from the protest resolution report is fairly typical: “Managing for climate change and maximizing carbon storage are not part of the purpose and need for this RMP revision.”

 

So I ask: which words matter? Perhaps words will have their day in court (literally.) Soon after the announcement of the BLM decision, a coalition of organizations (including Earth Justice, Cascadia Wildlands, Oregon Wild, Pacific Rivers, Wilderness Society, Western Environmental Law Center, American Bird Conservancy, and Portland Audubon) filed a lawsuit to challenge the management plan in the U.S. District Court in Oregon. We hope that the words of passionate conservationists will get a fair hearing.