On February 13, 1992, seven environmental groups file a lawsuit seeking to block a U.S. Forest Service plan to log 123 million board feet of timber annually in the Colville National Forest. This is a significant increase over the historic average of 80 million. John Osborn (b. 1956), coordinator of the Inland Empire Public Lands Council and one of the instigators of the lawsuit, says that his group is only "reluctantly" resorting to the lawsuit. Yet it is necessary, he says, because the current plan is "killing the forest" (Bonino).This is the culmination of a decade-old struggle between the logging industry, the U.S. Forest Service, and environmental and sporting groups over how much of the Colville forest to open to logging. The lawsuit will never go to court, but the environmental groups will soon spearhead a series of appeals through a new environmental initiative called Forest Watch that will have a dampening effect on logging. Logging on the Colville will soon go down from "80 million board feet per year to 15 million" (Whitesell). Osborn will call this "a huge turning point" in the drive to limit timber cutting on the region's national forests.
In the wee hours of April 3, 1990, it had appeared that the three parties might reach a deal that would keep the issue out of the courts. After mediated negotiations, a compromise was hammered out that allowed a more moderate level of logging, along with protection for streams, wildlife, and old forest. The Forest Service signed and the environmental groups signed. A lawyer for the Boise Cascade Corp., a timber company, said he would sign that morning. But then he backed out.
By July 1990, the negotiations broke down for good. A representative for the timber industry blamed the breakdown on "radical preservationists" (Titone, "Colville"). Osborn responded the Forest Service sprung a vastly different proposal on them, compared to the one they had signed in April.
"Northeastern Washington, like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, is being sucked dry of its forests," said Osborn. "Corporations over-cut their private lands and now demand the right to over-cut the Colville National Forest, too" (Osborn).
Environmental groups filed an appeal of the Forest Service's plan later in 1990. In a hearing, an environmental attorney called the plan a "joke" and said that 123 million board feet a year would "denude this forest over 10 years" (Titone, "Activists"). The Forest Service rejected the appeal in 1991.
Suing for the Forest
That left the environmental coalition with what it said was no option except to file the lawsuit. The parties to the suit were the Inland Northwest Public Lands Council, the Kettle Range Conservation Group, the Spokane Audubon Society, the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council, the Washington Wilderness Coalition, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society.
Osborn said that Eastern Washington forests were under increased logging pressure because the spotted-owl controversy had restricted logging on Western Washington forests.
A timber industry spokesman called the lawsuit "extremely disappointing." "This isn't untypical of (environmental) organizations, to file a lawsuit when they don't get their own way," said a timber spokesman (Bonino).
As it turned out, events overtook the lawsuit before it went to court. In 1993, U.S. Speaker of the House Tom Foley (1929-2013), who represented the district containing the Colville National Forest, attempted to include Eastern Washington forests in a new forest plan for west side forests that included extensive environmental safeguards. Osborn called the proposal "reassuring and refreshing," and "the first solid movement we have seen in northeastern Washington" (Lynch). However, the final plan did not include Eastern Washington.
In the meantime the Lands Council, with volunteer Barry Rosenberg, launched an initiative called Forest Watch, which taught grass-roots organizations to successfully appeal timber sales.
"The goal was to build some solid relationships with Forest Service officials and to involve the public, not to appeal every timber sale," said Osborn in a 2004 interview. "This was huge turning point. Timber cuts dropped dramatically. On the Colville, the drop was from 80 million board feet per year to 15 million. Grassroots forest-watch programs spread from the Rocky Mountain front to the Cascade Crest, It was an exciting time. Today, thousands of acres are still standing because of the forest-watch movement" (Whitesell).