Logging: Olympic National Forest

The story of the logging on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula 0710_a2is insightful into the current tensions along the harvest-preservation divides, how politically and legally a bird was used to achieve protection of the forests, how the then reduced timber harvest from the national forest economically impacted small rural towns reliant upon that timber, how the government then financially tried to support those small towns and individuals, and how humanity tried to atone for its cutting down of the aged  by attempting to nurse nature to facilitate more quickly its “return” to the state science determined it would be in if humans had not touched it.

Historically, the public land on the Olympic Peninsula was a national monument. 4988_a2In the name of the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson changed half of that acreage to National Forest Service Land in 1915, so that the area’s timber could be harvested for the spruce warplanes.  Railroads and roads were established throughout the forest,[1] and continued to be built through the subsequent decades.[2]

There is much more to the story of the Olympic Peninsula forests than will be articulated here, as the road we are taking is though government forests, and not through the private nor Native American land.

As environmentalism and awareness of the impact of human activities on nature increased during the mid to latter part of the twentieth century,[3] tensions with logging practices became more prominent, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.[4] Pressure was put on the government to protect the forests. Then a way was found to politically and legally protect the forests: a bird. Under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the northern spotted owl was declared threatened in 1990. Its habitat was the old growth forests of Washington, Oregon, and northern California, and habitat loss and therefore logging was pointed to as a primary reason for the species’ decline. Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies have to work towards threatened species’ recovery, and so timber harvest in the Olympic National Forest was stopped.[5] Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to study and report on the forest context of the Pacific Northwest, and in 1993 the Committee on Environmental Issues in Pacific Northwest Forest Management came together for this purpose. That same year, the Northwest Forest Plan was adopted under President Bill Clinton, [6] which reduced timber harvest allowances from Northwest public land, required certain silviculture practices, established an expectation for the development of old growth reserves and conservation measures, and provided economic aid through the Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative (NEAI) to help the communities that were most affected by the Northwest Forest Plan.[7]

The small, rural communities that relied heavily on the national forest timber harvests did experience economic consequences from the Northwest Forest Plan. If one takes Highway 101, 0726_a2 which follows the circumference of the public land on the Olympic Peninsula, one will find there is really not much there in terms of population nor diverse means of income. It is truly rural. If we look at the numbers from 1982 prior to the Northwest Forest Plan, to 2001 which was nearly a decade after, the western areas of Clallam and Jefferson Counties on the Olympic Peninsula saw about 60 to 80 percent loss of logging-related companies; multiply that by the estimated number of employees, then one gets a sense of the impact to individual persons. More specifically, logging companies decreased from about 70 to 14, 47 independent trucking companies to 19, 38 shake mills reduced to 15, and 8 sawmills became just 2 over that period of time.[8]

The NEAI funding was imperfectly implemented, and not all communities had the resource capacity to develop the long-term strategies or networks required by the funding criteria, which meant communities did not receive some of the support they needed. There were likewise issues with the job training aid, as well as a lack of local jobs, and those jobs that did exist nearby often paid less than what was being earned through working in the timber industry. A special study conducted of one of the communities noted that the 2000 census showed an increase in poverty in that community, which was mirrored by numbers that indicated an increase of the community’s students on Free and Reduced Lunch.[9]

The forests, too, received extra support. The strategy now was to “help” nature undo what we did to it. One visible way, which is a current project, is reducing the 2000 miles of road in the Olympic National Forest, which were primarily graded between the 1950s through 1990s for logging operations.[10] Another way is through silviculture practices that work to restore and mimic the natural disturbances that would occur within the forests that facilitate its development into late successional and eventually old growth forest status. Through computer models and discussions with interdisciplinary teams (including soils, archeology and aquatic scientists, for example), the United States Forest Service (USFS) creates reserves, essentially designated areas that are given special protection and attention, in order to develop those stands into the late successional and old growth stages. Where naturally fire might be a cyclical disturbance that promotes forest growth, the USFS sivilcuturists utilize other practices, which they are finding yield “great results”, according to a USFS silviculturist I spoke with. For example, variable density thinning is used, which creates more space between trees, which would have naturally occurred if seed were not purposely set down in post-harvest operations. Thinning allows for less competition of resources so that trees can grow larger more quickly. The process of thinning requires very specifically prescribed logging. If the contracted logging company breaches the contract set by the USFS, an investigation is conducted to determine whether the breach was intentional or not, and consequences can range from fines, to being ineligible to participate in future business with the USFS, to prison. The USFS is closely studying their now 30 years of this specific work in the Olympic National Forest, comparing managed sites to control areas.[11]  The forest management practices are described on the USFS’s Olympic Habitat Development Study site, and includes thinning, ensuring biodiversity of trees, and creating gaps for the growth of the understory.[12]  All of this is done in order to move forests toward a complex ecosystem, which is a feature of old growth status.[13]

Ironically, as the United States government put effort into protecting the Northwest forests on behalf of the northern spotted owl, the heavy logging was really merely displaced to elsewhere. There was an increase in timber harvests in the U.S. South in response to the reduction in national land timber harvests in the Northwest. Perhaps at some point the South will find a symbolic southern spotted owl to change the management plans of the forests there.

The story of the logging on the Olympic Peninsula is paradoxical, as it reflects how we as a species make decisions often for economic gain, how we manipulate and change the environment in the process, later decide that other costs are too high, retract our position, and then we manipulate again to “facilitate” or correct the impacts made to the enviornment or to people’s lives. We harvested the old growth forests in the Northwest to the degree that it endangered the northern spotted owl; timber harvests on federal land was reduced in response, which in reality simply displaced the location of the cutting to another region of the country. As a society we sanctioned the logging in the Olympic Peninsula for so long that small rural communities and families that earned their living from the timber industry then needed to be supported, so money was used to ameliorate that consequence. Will we learn how to use the land’s resources in a way that treads lightly on nature and our fellow neighbors?

IMGP4985Following one of the roads out of the Olympic National Forest and its canopy provides a visual reminder of the paradoxical tensions and philosophies of how the forests are considered and used. IMG_6350


See the rest of the Logging in the Pacific Northwest project


[1] Chiang, C. and Reese, M. (Year unknown). Evergreen State: Exploring the History of Washington’s Forests. A Curriculum Project for Washington Schools. Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Department of History. (Page 13).

[2] Identifying a Sustainable Road System. Retrieved January 16, 2015 from Olympic National Forest: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/olympic/home/?cid=stelprd3797662.

[3] Chiang and Reese, Page 17.

[4] National Research Council (U.S.). (2000). Environmental issues in Pacific Northwest forest management. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press. (Page 1).

[5] American Forests. (2014, Fall). Saga of the Spotted Owl; Photography by Francois-Xavier de Ruydts. American Forests, 120(3), 38-41.; Chiang and Reese, Page 17-18.

[6] National Research Council (U.S.), Page ix, 1.

[7] Chiang and Reese, Page 15.; National Research Council (U.S.), Pages 24-25, 144-145.

[8] Buttolph, L. & Kusel, J. (Year unkonwn.) Forest Community Research: Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative Assessment – Forks, Clallam County, Washington. Sierra Institute. Retrieved September 18, 2014 from Sierra Institute: http://www.sierrainstitute.us/neai/WA_case_studies/Forks_WA.pdf. (Page 5).

[9] Buttolph, L. & Kusel, J. (Year unkonwn.) Forest Community Research: Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative Assessment – Forks, Clallam County, Washington.

[10] Identifying a Sustainable Road System. Retrieved January 16, 2015 from Olympic National Forest: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/olympic/home/?cid=stelprd3797628, http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/olympia/silv/ohds/index.html.

[11] USFS Forester. (2014). Informational interview. 20 October 2014.

[12] Olympic Habitat Development Study. Retrieved January 16, 2016 from U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/olympia/silv/ohds/index.html.

[13] National Research Council (U.S.), Page 8, 46, 51-52.