The U.S. Forest Service should not be too hasty to abandon a regionwide approach in the Northwest Forest Plan.

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TWENTY years ago, the intergovernmental Northwest Forest Plan defused the timber wars, quieting the heated chatter of owls versus jobs. The breakthrough flowed from a regional approach to managing 24 million acres of public federal lands in Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Today, as the plan faces revision, its forward-thinking design is at risk.

The U.S. Forest Service has signaled that it may jettison the plan’s regionwide strategy covering all the forests and return to the pre-1994 model of overseeing individual forests along arbitrary boundaries.

That would be a mistake. In the era of record wildfires and climate change, a strong regional framework is the only viable, ecologically sound path forward.

Wildlife, ecosystems and fish don’t abide by political and state lines drawn on a map. The Northwest Forest Plan incorporates that axiom and breathes life into the Endangered Species Act. It requires multiple agencies, governments and tribes to work in concert. Silos have been torn down and new regional thinking adopted.

The 1994 plan divides forests into three categories: so-called Matrix Land, which is for multiple use, including logging; Riparian Reserves; and Late Successional Reserves (LSR), which contain mature forests. The latter category’s 7.4 million acres include significant old growth, and road building and logging are not permitted.

The strategy has boosted water quality and enhanced habitat for threatened salmon and steelhead species. The old trees also serve as something of a carbon sponge, a counterforce to climate change.

Officials with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the first forest to undergo the review, might adopt a 2010 restoration strategy that would get rid of LSRs, potentially opening them up to other uses. While Forest Service officials pay lip service to the regional concept, this approach could set a shortsighted precedent and be less enforceable than the current LSR framework.

Over the years, the culture of the Forest Service has changed for the better. The regional office appears committed to a transparent process. Its revisions must preserve a truly regionwide vision, whichwould keep alive the principles that have worked so well for 20 years.