The Northwest Forest Plan

By Elaine Zielinski

“Sometimes I feel like I’m living the title of that Calvin and Hobbes book, ‘Scientific Progress Goes Boink.’”
                                          —Elaine Zielinski, Northwest Forest Plan meeting

The Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was the BLM’s first large-scale, multiagency effort that was based on a comprehensive scientific report.  Implementation of the plan launched a new model of interagency and intergovernmental collaboration and institutionalized science and management relationships that endure to this day.

Photo of a Northern Spotted Owl in Oregon, (BLM)
A northern spotted owl in Oregon.  (BLM)
Dueling science efforts prevailed throughout the development of the NWFP.  At every opportunity, another group was formed, documents were issued, and shots were fired.  Industry, labor unions, environmental organizations, counties, and states did not sit idly by.  Scientists of every persuasion were called upon to dispute all aspects of the “jobs vs. owls” debate, and scientists for hire prevailed.  If you looked long enough, gathered statistics, and diced them different ways, you could find support for your position.  As Mark Twain said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” 
The NWFP was on the cutting edge in many ways.  It was based on option 9 of the Federal Ecosystem Management Analysis Team (FEMAT) report, an option developed by scientists, and the decision to turn it into a land use plan was unprecedented.  
Scientists sat at the table with land managers and regulatory agencies.  The atmosphere was highly charged.  When was there enough study and analysis?  When were we slipping into “paralysis by analysis”?  One manager said that if we had to understand all of this, we’d never get anything done!
Managers wanted answers with probabilities of success and estimates of risk.  Scientists were comfortable with uncertainty and the changing nature of scientific knowledge.  Managers wanted scientists to shoulder some responsibility for the decisions, but not to usurp their decisionmaking authority or flexibility.  Managers also applied regulations and legal requirements that were unfamiliar to scientists.  Scientists wanted the information they provided to be considered without political or personal values inserted.  Scientists presented complicated information in technical terms, and managers did not have a good understanding of the peer review process.  Both groups needed to understand their different perspectives and overcome their language barriers. 
One overriding issue in the manager–scientist relationship was a lack of trust.  This was apparent when the FEMAT, which consisted of 60 federal employees, mostly scientists, rented an auditorium in Portland, Oregon.  They were developing maps of owl habitat, owl locations, and fish habitat, and working 12- to 14-hour days.  Managers wanted to visit to see what was going on.  Most of the individuals doing the mapping were, in fact, their own employees. 

The quick response was:  “NO!”  The rationale was that such a visit would disrupt work and “intimidate” those preparing the maps.  Also, managers might leak information to industry, the press, or environmental groups.
A compromise was reached.  Managers were allowed to visit, but they had to wear bright orange “hunter safety” vests to be easily identified.  This did not go over well with the managers.  Nevertheless they donned the vests, observed the troops, and, in their minds, showed their support. 
As managers and scientists worked through implementation, relationships improved and roles were clarified.  However, it remained a constant struggle to balance “scientifically credible and defensible” with “pragmatic and implementable” information.
In developing the plan, neither the scientists nor the managers got everything they wanted.  The regulatory agencies presented their own scientific data obtained from Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation, at times confounding the other scientists.  Political influences caused significant changes to option 9 of the FEMAT report, adding constraints such as the “survey and manage” requirement for sensitive species in old growth ecosystems.  This requirement brought in new scientists focused on single species.
Many meetings regarding the "survey and manage" requirement resulted in heated disagreements, and when the various attorneys got involved, confusion reigned.  Managers sometimes threw up their hands in frustration; some felt intimidated by the threat of an ESA listing, additional lawsuits, or the vision of the entire plan failing if they did not comply.
In spite of the trials and tribulations, significant strides were made in improving the relationship between decisionmakers and scientists.  Today there is a realization that they must work together to get to scientifically credible and implementable decisions.  Scientists have learned they must translate complicated information in a way that decisionmakers can understand.  Decisionmakers have realized the benefits of having credible scientific information behind their  decisions.  Both feel more comfortable having open discussions. 
After many years, the science–management collaboration has been institutionalized within the BLM.  I cannot imagine going forward with any major policy formulation without examining the science.  Ensuring that scientific information is available and considered in decisions is an integral job of land managers.  In that sense, the NWFP was a remarkable achievement.

Elaine Zielinski served as state director for Arizona and for Oregon and Washington.  She held various positions in Portland and Eugene, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; and Washington, DC.  While deputy state director for resources in Portland, she served on the Interagency Coordination Development Team of the FEMAT.  Elaine is now retired.