RUCH, Ore. (AP) — On a steep ridge covered with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and oak so thick the falling snow could hardly make its way to the ground, two grizzled veterans of the spotted owl wars were tying green plastic flagging around big old trees so they would not be cut down when timber fallers come to make a reality out of their principles for breaking the logjam over managing the nation's forests.
It divided national forests in Washington, Oregon and California into two landscapes — one for timber and one for the spotted owl, salmon and other fish and wildlife — to settle lawsuits brought by conservation groups.
Their plan didn't work out as they hoped, and after nearly 30 years of non-stop court and political battles, the Obama administration is hoping Franklin and Johnson can show federal agencies a new path forward.
This path would make good on the elusive promise that federal forests nationwide can produce timber that creates jobs in struggling rural timber towns, and habitat for fish and wildlife on the brink of extinction — all without going up in smoke every summer.
"If everything works out, this will become the basis for a whole new vision, a whole new strategy for management of the federal forests," Franklin said. "This is sort of a seed we're planting. If the ground is fertile — the stakeholders feel this is consistent with what they want — it will grow into a completely different approach. We'll manage these lands for both ecological and economic benefits. We'll integrate those goals rather than trying to separate them."
There are tough obstacles to overcome.
Federal forests are managed under a principle called multiple use, providing timber for jobs, habitat for wildlife, forests for recreation and sources for clean water. Timber production paid the bills and called the tune until the 1990s, when conservation groups sued to force protection of habitat for the northern spotted owl and salmon in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
The Northwest Forest Plan allowed logging to resume. The plan created old-growth reserves protecting habitat and other lands designated for logging. Timber production was cut by about 80 percent of the harvests of the 1980s. The logging cutbacks spread through the entire national forest system.
The Bush administration tried to scrap the plan to allow more logging, but was repeatedly overturned by the courts. Its last-ditch effort to increase logging on BLM lands in Western Oregon was withdrawn by the Obama administration as legally indefensible.
Automation, logging cutbacks on federal lands, foreign imports and the collapse of the housing industry have left the timber industry a shadow of what it was in the 1980s, but rural communities still hold out hope it will come back. Besides timber jobs, federal forests share timber revenues with counties where the timber is cut. Those revenues have plummeted with the declining harvest, and federal safety net funding runs out this year.
For the past 25 years, private lands have filled the timber gap, but now China's booming economy is renewing interest in federal forests.
Meanwhile, wildfires have become a perennial problem, increasing pressure to thin out dense forests.
Hoping to find a way out of this logjam, Oregon Democrats Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Jeff Merkley brought Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to Oregon last October. He backed three pilot projects on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in Western Oregon.
One is in the dry forests of the Siskiyou Mountains outside Medford, a second in the wet forests of the Cascade Range outside Roseburg, and a third in the even wetter Coast Range outside Coquille.
The Medford District project targets about 5,000 acres in an 80,000-acre watershed in the Applegate Valley. All of it is on lands that had already been designated for logging. BLM offered a timber sale on this ridge in 2004, but it didn't sell. Timber companies felt the amount of logs didn't justify the cost of taking them out. But a few stumps show where big old pines easy to get at were cut.
Franklin and Johnson's vision for restoring this forest — reducing the danger of wildfire and insect infestations while maintaining habitat for the northern spotted owl — would cut far more trees than the last timber sale.
Historically, because of regular wildfires, this ridge would have been covered mostly by grass and brush, with scattered big pines, oaks and madrones and some isolated dense patches of trees, said Johnson. Instead, it is densely packed with Douglas fir. After the pilot project, most of the Douglas fir will be gone, making it tougher for fire to kill the big pines and dense patches.
Jennifer and Link Phillippi own the last sawmill standing in Josephine County, The Rough & Ready Lumber Co. in O'Brien. After losing a BLM timber sale to an adverse court ruling over spotted owl habitat, they were hoping this pilot project would be their salvation. But after touring it last weekend, Jennifer Phjillippi came away disappointed because the site is one where timber interests and conservationists already agreed logging is needed.
"If we're really going to do things the forest needs, I think we need to be bold and step into places people might have concerns and get past them," she said. "The forest isn't getting any better as long as we're avoiding problems."
Doug Robertson, a county commissioner in Douglas County, said the tight restrictions of the Northwest Forest Plan and expanding habitat protections for the northern spotted owl make it impossible to repeat Franklin and Johnson's vision across a wide landscape.
As an alternative, he wants to split the BLM timber lands in Oregon in two, selling off 1.2 million acres for private timber production, and locking up 1.2 million acres for fish and wildlife habitat.
After the past 25 years in court, conservation groups don't trust BLM.
"It is not so clear to us they have embraced a different management approach," said Joseph Vaile of Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands.
This mistrust and divided landscape are just what Franklin and Johnson hope to overcome.
"The whole notion that you can manage the federal estate with a singular type of outcome, either timber production or owl habitat, is not desirable socially or ecologically," said Franklin.
Johnson added: "Whenever we try that, we end up running into a ditch."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.