Conservation Opportunities Identified in 17 Pacific Northwest National Forests

Currently unprotected, these areas boast high biodiversity and carbon storage potential

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Conservation Opportunities Identified in 17 Pacific Northwest National Forests
Sunlight streams through the trees of the Siuslaw National Forest along the Oregon coast.
Sunlight streams through the trees of the Siuslaw National Forest along the Oregon coast.
USFS Flickr

The expansive national forests of the Pacific Northwest hold significant ecological, cultural, and economic value for the American people. Several species of at-risk wildlife depend on these intact and healthy mature forests for their survival, and they store more carbon than forests in any other region of the country. These forests are the ancestral home of many Tribes who are deeply connected to the land. Local communities benefit from ecosystem services the forests provide, such as clean air and water, and their economies get a boost: According to the U.S. Forest Service’s Bioregional Assessment, visitors spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and the forest products industry generates tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue.

 

The Forest Service carefully manages these public lands to ensure that the important values noted above remain into the future. Since 1994, the agency has implemented a landscape-scale approach known as the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) to manage 17 national forests stretching from the U.S.-Canadian border into northwestern California. The goal of the NWFP was to consistently manage the approximately 19.2-million-acre area to protect old forest ecosystems, wildlife, and local economies.

Monitoring, new science, and changes within the NWFP region over the past three decades have revealed which aspects of the original plan are still working and which need updating. For example, the Forest Service has identified climate change, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, and invasive species as some of the urgent threats to the health and integrity of these forests.  The Forest Service is interested in updating the NWFP to reflect the evolving science and a growing understanding of the region’s forest ecology.

Pew commissioned analyses, conducted by research nonprofit Conservation Science Partners, of the 17 national forests within the NWFP area to identify critical conservation areas for biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate resilience. These “high ecological value areas” (HEVAs) are currently unprotected places that contain the top 10% of ecologically valuable lands within a given forest. The data contained in these analyses can help the agency understand how to ensure the ecological health of the forests while balancing the multiple-use mandate to coordinate outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife and fish, and wilderness for the benefit of people and nature. Prioritizing the conservation of HEVAs, as outlined in the analyses, could help support thriving, healthy forests.

A rare coastal Pacific marten in the Oregon Dunes in the Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon.
A rare coastal Pacific marten in the Oregon Dunes in the Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon.
Mark Linnell U.S. Forest Pacific Northwest Research Station and Oregon State University via AP

Here are some highlights from the Conservation Science Partners reports:

The pink flowers of a showy phlox bloom in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California.
The pink flowers of a showy phlox bloom in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California.
USFS Flickr

In northwest California, the NWFP includes the Klamath, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Shasta-Trinity, and Six Rivers national forests, as well as a portion of the Rogue River-Siskiyou. Within the area covered by the NWFP, Northern California is anticipated to be most affected by climate change. This makes it especially important to protect HEVAs from additional human-caused stressors such as commercial logging, given their high resistance to climate change. The analysis of this area identified HEVAs in places such as Pitney Ridge, south and east of Lake Pillsbury, around the Middle Fork of the Smith River and its tributaries, and Craggy Mountain, among others.

A snowy Mount Hood on a late winter day as seen from Lookout Mountain in the Badger Creek Wilderness in the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon.
A snowy Mount Hood on a late winter day as seen from Lookout Mountain in the Badger Creek Wilderness in the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon.
USFS Flickr

In Oregon, the NWFP encompasses forests from the Cascades west to the Pacific coast, including the Deschutes, Fremont-Winema, Mt. Hood, Rogue-River Siskiyou, Siuslaw, Umpqua, and Willamette national forests. In the NWFP area and nationally, forests collect rainwater and snowmelt, which makes them critical water sources for downstream communities. For example, the 102-square-mile Bull Run watershed on the Mt. Hood National Forest serves as the primary drinking water supply for the nearly 1 million residents of the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan region. Across these forests in Oregon, the analysis identified HEVAs around places such as Bull Run River, Deer Butte, Twin Lakes Mountain, and the areas southwest of Mt. Hebo and around Eslick Creek, among others.

Green forests stretch to the horizon from this overlook on Big Huckleberry Mountain in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington
Green forests stretch to the horizon from this overlook on Big Huckleberry Mountain in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington.
USFS Flickr

In Washington, as in Oregon, the NWFP encompasses forests from the Cascades west to the Pacific coast, including the Gifford Pinchot, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee, and Olympic national forests. Many of these forests have especially high carbon densities, exceeding 111 tons per acre or more in some cases. The Pew-commissioned analyses, which included consideration of total ecosystem carbon, identified HEVAs across these forests in places such as Capitol Peak/Mount Church, along the Cascade and Cispus rivers, and by Big and Little Huckleberry mountains, among others.

We encourage the Forest Service, in collaboration with the public, to use the data in these reports to craft an updated NWFP that will protect and sustain the value of these forests in perpetuity.

John Seebach is a project director and Blake Busse is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation program.

These reports are among 51 analyses Pew has commissioned Conservation Science Partners to undertake to determine the most important ecologically valuable, and as yet unprotected, areas within the country’s national forests. Like these forests in California, Oregon, and Washington, the pending forest analyses involve areas expected to undergo revisions in the next several years.