November 14 / 16, 2008
A Cautionary Tale for Greens in the Age of Obama
How Clinton Doomed the Spotted Owl
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
When biologist Jack Ward Thomas handed President Bill Clinton the final copy of his plan for the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest Forest, Clinton asked only one question: “How much timber will it cut?”
With this revealing query began the bizarre final chapter in the saga of Clinton’s adventure in the rainforests of the Northwest, the home of the salmon and the spotted owl.
In the final two weeks of April 1994, the Clinton administration saw its strategy to reinitiate timber sales in Northwest forests come to a shocking fruition, when most of the key environmental groups in the region agreed to lift the three-year old federal injunction prohibiting new timber sales in spotted owl habitat. At the same moment, one of the nation’s largest forest products companies announced its glowing support for Clinton’s forest plan.
Watch how neatly the pattern of events unfolded.
On April 14, 1994, the Clinton administration submitted the Record of Decision for its Northwest forest plan to federal Judge William Dwyer in Seattle. A disturbing codicil to the original plan (widely known as Option 9), the 200-page Record of Decision granted a series of last-minute concessions to timber interests that were designed to accelerate the preparation of new timber sales in old-growth and keep the plan’s annual timber sale above the one billion board foot mark—the psychological barrier demanded by the timber industry.
The animals pay the price. For example, in order to meet the politically-driven cut levels, the final document shrank protection of the rare Marbled Murrelet by 250,000 acres in southern Oregon alone. The Marbled Murrelet is a chunky sea-faring bird that nests only in old-growth forests near the Pacific Ocean. It is listed as a threatened species. The diminished Murrelet was specifically tailored to clear the way for several enormous timber sales slated for the Siskiyou National Forest. Some of these sales, including the hotly contested Sugarloaf sale, are located in roadless areas.
Despite the intense uproar from the public and the scientific community over the prospect of logging and roadbuilding inside these ancient forest reserves, the Clinton plan greenlights thinning and salvage logging inside these supposedly sacrosanct areas without being subject to a detailed environmental assessment. This change was geared toward accelerating logging in the Oregon Coast Range and the Olympic Peninsula, the two areas where the Spotted Owl is most vulnerable to local extinction.
Most seriously, the final document dramatically weakened the standards for watershed analysis in order to “fast-track” logging operations in key basins. Back in 1993, Clinton and Bruce Babbitt hailed these detailed environmental assessments as the analytical and procedural cornerstone of the new ecosystem management approach. The basin-wide reviews were supposed to force timber sale planners to closely scrutinize the effects of logging and roadbuilding on entire watersheds. In fact, the group of scientists that peer-reviewed the draft Clinton plan concluded that these watershed assessment were “critical to the eventual success of adaptive management.” But with a stroke of the pen, Thomas and Clinton wiped them away.
As Clinton was taking with one hand, he was giving with the other. On April 15, 1994, a band of timber executives announced that they would not oppose the implementation of the new Clinton plan in court, opting instead for a “congressional strategy.” This meant that the industry planned to beg their congressional clients—men like Senator Mark Hatfield and House Speaker Tom Foley—to simply inscribe into law higher timber sales levels for the region than are called for under the Option 9 scheme and to insure that, once the levels are set, they remain immune from judicial scrutiny.
Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas indicated that he “might have a personal preference for timber targets” set by congress. This is where the slippery nature of Clintonism turns opaque. Instead of fighting for the ecological integrity of their own forest plan, they sent up a smoke signal to congress begging them to subvert it.
But this was a tall order. For starters, Congress didn’t want to take the blame for Clinton’s failures. Sen. George Mitchell told Bruce Babbitt point blank that he would fight any effort by the administration to shield its plan from legal review. Even traditional architects of so-called sufficiency legislation (laws that set timber and road-building targets and free activities from compliance with environmental statutes) displayed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this approach without having an explicit and public nod of support from Clinton himself—a commitment that the president was unwilling to make.
Meanwhile, the federal courts had already struck a blow to the legality of the approach used to craft Clinton’s logging plan. In March 1994, in a suit brought by the Native Forest Council, Federal Judge Thomas Jackson ruled that the secretive process used to develop Option 9 violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, or FACA. Along with the Freedom of Information Act, FACA stands as one of the pillars of open government. It requires that all advisory panels to the federal government contain balanced representation, hold public hearings, and make their deliberative records open to public review. Judge Jackson ruled that the Clinton approach violated each of these requirements.
This case laid the legal groundwork for the substantive challenges to future timber sales offered under the Clinton plan. For example, FACA seems likely to be a fruitful angle of attack against the consensus-based planning processes that are proliferating under the Adaptive Management approach. The response of the Clinton administration was to test congressional sentiment for a repeal of FACA. Sound familiar?
On April 19, several of the environmental plaintiffs in the Spotted Owl lawsuits declared their dissatisfaction with the Clinton plan at a press conference in Washington, DC. “The plan has come a long way politically, but falls short ecologically,” charged Andy Kerr, conservation director of the Oregon Natural Resources Department. “It fails to protect hundreds of species identified as dependent on old-growth forests, placing many at risk of extinction. Clearly, this doesn’t meet President Clinton’s own standard that the plan be scientifically credible and legally responsible.”
Kerr and Julie Norman, director of Headwaters, a southern Oregon conservation group, vowed that the environmentalists would mount a full-blown legal assault on the Clinton forest plan. She said the legal challenge would focus on “salmon, economics, and some owl claims.”
Here’s where things turn mysterious. One short day after these brawny pronouncements, Judge William Dwyer convened a status conference on the case in Seattle. At this hearing, the Forest Service officially requested that the injunction on new timber sales in Spotted Owl habitat be dissolved. The agency’s attorneys claimed that merely by filing the new plan with the court they had fully complied with the judge’s orders. At that point, Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund’s attorney shocked the court. True told Dwyer that the eleven environmental groups represented by his law firm would not oppose the Clinton administration’s request to lift the injunction and begin logging in old-growth again. He said that while the environmentalists might file an “amended complaint” to the old lawsuit, they were unlikely to seek a new injunction.
This was the second capitulation by the green lawyers to Clinton in less than a year. In September of 1993, in “a gesture of goodwill” to the Clinton administration, the environmentalists agreed to allow logging with fifty-four timber sales in old-growth forests vital to the survival of the Spotted Owl. It was at that point that the Forest Conservation Council, a Santa Fe-based group, split from the coalition and got new lawyers to press the fight.
And as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund offered to give up the entire injunction, only the Forest Conservation Council and the Native Forest Council of Eugene, Oregon demonstrated any resistance to the Clinton crowd’s political pressure to surrender the hard-won legal victory. The Native Forest Council was not a plaintiff in the original suit, but was granted amicus status by the court. Both organizations filed briefs with Judge Dwyer voicing strenuous objections to the release of the injunction. They argued that the burden of proof should lie with Clinton’s Forest Service to demonstrate that it is in compliance with the judge’s orders. But those suits were a long shot, a final protestation of a politically-driven sellout.
With the injunction lifted, the Forest Service began implementing the Clinton logging plan in June of 1994. The agency told the court it was ready to put forward 165 million board feet of timber in owl habitat during the summer—the first new timber sales since the Bush administration.
On April 21, Weyerhaeuser fulfilled its end of the bargain. The timber giant’s executive vice-president declared that the company was satisfied with the Clinton logging plan and pledged to defend it in Congress or the courts “by any means necessary.” You know you’re in deep trouble when corporate executives start quoting Malcolm X.
But Weyerhaeuser’s support for the Clinton plan shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The company, along with other industrial forest land owners, such as Plum Creek, ITT-Rayonier, Simpson and Georgia-Pacific, were the clear winners in the Option 9 sweepstakes. After all, these corporations had already been the financial beneficiaries of declining federal timber sales. As the price of lumber soared, so did their profits. The Clinton plan’s permanent restrictions on the rate of federal land logging substantially increases the long-term value of their own holdings.
More importantly for Weyerhaeuser, under the generous provisions of the Clinton administration’s new 4(d) Rule, industrial forest land owners were largely exempted from the Endangered Species Act’s strict prohibition against the “incidental taking” (that is, killing) of a listed species. This regressive rule punishes small landowners, but allows these multinational timber titans to continue clearcutting unabated in Spotted Owl habitat on their own lands, even when it ravages the owl’s already declining population.
Of course, the biggest victory for companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek came when the Clinton administration stiff-armed environmentalists and labor leaders by refusing to stem the flow of raw log exports from private, corporate, and industrial lands in the Northwest. Even though the owl takes the rap, these exports are the leading cause of job loss in the timber sector.
For years, environmental strategists had plotted the ultimate crack-up of the timber monolith, pitting private landowners against public timber buyers (such as Louisiana-Pacific), domestic millers against log exporters. Well, the fissures finally came, but they didn’t unfold the way many expected—the most socially and environmentally deviant corporations emerged as unscathed victors.
What do we make of this odd accumulation of events, this carefully executed endgame to the Northwest forest crisis? Some grassroots environmentalists and labor organizers for the pulp and paper workers’ union charge that a three-way deal was cut between mainstream green groups, log exporters, and the Clinton administration. From a distance, the pattern to this rapid denouement seemed horribly prearranged. But the conspiracy falters on one salient point: the environmentalists received nothing for their gestures of goodwill, their reluctant dealmaking. Option 9 degenerated with every concession; it didn’t improve. In the end, only the lawyers made out. Trees for fees.
No, the bizarre and tragic conclusion to the Northwest forest fight simply revealed the fundamental nature of the Clinton approach and its abiding allegiance to corporate culture. If Clinton and Al Gore really shared an interest in protecting American timber workers and the ecology of the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there was an obvious solution: end commercial logging on public lands and terminate the export of unprocessed logs to overseas ports. But Clinton didn’t align himself with the owl, the working stiffs, or the grassroots. He sided with the suits.
This essay is adapted from Born Under a Bad Sky: Notes From the Dark Side of the Earth by Jeffrey St. Clair (CounterPunch/AK Press).
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.