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Origins of the Northwest Forest Plan

More than 15 million acres of ancient Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar once blanketed the Pacific Northwest. Wild salmon, traveling from the Pacific Ocean to rivers and streams throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and northern California, spawned in overwhelming numbers. Decades of logging, however, took an inevitable toll on the landscape. By the late 1980s, the timber industry was cutting 5 billion board feet per year in the Northwest, including an estimated 70 acres of old growth – or close to 80 football fields – each day. As vast swaths of forests disappeared and rivers were choked with sediment washed from barren slopes, once-abundant fish and wildlife struggled to survive.

In 1987, Earthjustice (then the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) initiated a campaign to protect old-growth forests and the species, like the northern spotted owl, that make them their home. The northern spotted owl is highly dependent on intact stands of old growth trees for its nesting and foraging, yet for years the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management pursued widespread clearcut logging without regard to the owl's habitat needs. A string of legal victories for Earthjustice followed, resulting in the listing of the owl under the Endangered Species Act and the halting of unrestrained old growth logging on public lands in the Northwest. An article in a 1993 edition of the American Bar Association Journal referred to this work as "the most stunning series of environmental victories ever put together by an environmental litigation team."

The old growth litigation, in combination with broad public demand for change, led to a 1993 Forest Conference convened by then-President Bill Clinton and a mandate to develop an ecology-based forest management scheme. The effort produced the Northwest Forest Plan, the first ecosystem management plan for public lands. The Plan covers 24 million acres of public land in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. Since its implementation, logging in the affected area has dropped by more than 80 percent.