Register-Guard by Susan Palmer
ROSEBURG — Sometime this month a couple of guys old enough to have retired from their academic careers will be stomping around in the woods marking trees for harvest.
They’ll be working in the Myrtle Creek watershed, a complex jumble of steep slopes cut by creeks and streams, about 30,000 acres of it managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Researchers Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin — 68 and 75 years old, respectively — have been working on forestry issues for decades. Johnson, a professor of forestry resources at Oregon State University, and Franklin, a professor of ecosystem science at the University of Washington, were part of the team that wrote the Northwest Forest Plan, the management directive that has governed logging on Pacific Northwest public forests since 1994.
Now they’ve come up with a couple of demonstration projects for logging on BLM forests that could showcase a way to preserve the ecosystem while generating timber income.
The projects have been fast-tracked thanks to the influence of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. At a meeting at BLM’s Roseburg office last week, 25 people — including environmentalists and timber industry representatives — looked at maps outlining potential sites for one of the logging projects, and asked questions of Johnson and BLM employees. More meetings will follow, including one today.
Whether the new approach can satisfy competing interests — the counties that have relied on BLM logging for revenue dating back to 1937, a timber industry with its small mills in rural areas still stuck in double-digit unemployment, and the environmentalists who want vibrant ecosystems that support species facing extinction — remains to be seen.
The BLM, which manages 2.2 million acres of forests in Western Oregon, developed a logging plan under the Bush administration that would have almost tripled logging here.
That plan — known as the Western Oregon Plan Revision, or WOPR — was yanked by the Obama administration in 2009, and in 2010 a new task force came up with a list of proposals designed to find collaborative solutions to end lawsuits by environmentalists and the timber industry that have stymied either logging projects themselves or the management plans that govern them.
The pilot projects in the Roseburg and Medford districts are a part of that effort to find middle ground.
Johnson and Franklin have proposed two strategies based on the type of forest being managed.
Moist forests — flush with Douglas fir and western cedar that experience fewer but more catastrophic fires — would be treated differently than dry forests dominated by pine and which experience more frequent but lower-intensity fires.
Managing dry forests would mean leaving the oldest trees, thinning to reduce the fuels that can drive intense wildfire and increasing the diversity of age classes among the trees.
Management on moist forests would put an end to regeneration harvests, a technique also known as clear-cutting, in favor of “variable retention harvesting,” a strategy that leaves 20 or 30 percent of the trees.
Regardless of the type of forest, the oldest trees — 150 years and older — would be left standing, with the overall goal being to increase the diversity of the forests remaining.
In the moist forests, some big trees would be cut in an effort to open up the canopy and let in more light, Johnson said.
Instead of quickly reseeding, the open areas would be allowed to develop naturally with downed wood harboring lots of living creatures, and shrubs that attract birds and butterflies and the creatures that browse, such as elk.
Opening up the canopy in some parts of the forest encourages ecosystem diversity, Johnson said.
Variable retention harvesting isn’t new. It’s been done in Canada on both publicly and privately owned lands, Franklin said. An industrial forestry company in British Columbia, MacMillan Bloedel, tried it in the late 1990s, starting with the intention of leaving 10 percent of the trees, but over a five-year period wound up leaving 21 percent of the trees, Franklin said.
The pilot projects in the Roseburg and Medford districts will give people a firsthand look at this kind of strategy, but Johnson cautioned that it’s not a scientific study or test of ideas.
“It’s a demonstration,” he said. “People will be able to see what kind of harvest we’re talking about. They’ll be able to walk it, see what trees we take and what trees we leave.”
Franklin thinks the projects may point the way past the gridlock of the past.
“It is a way that you can achieve economic and ecological good,” he said. “It has positives from both an environmental and economic point of view.”
Those engaged in the forestry debate are definitely watching.
The American Forest Resource Council supports the dry forest strategy, said Tom Partin, president of the timber industry group.
“Opening (dry forests) up to prevent catastrophic wildfire, we think it has some merit,” he said. But he’s less enthusiastic about leaving trees standing in the moist forest approach.
He doesn’t think the pilot projects will necessarily free up more timber, but will help people understand the tremendous management challenges the BLM faces.
When people look at the agency’s various maps, some that show owl nest sites that can’t be disturbed, others that designate fish-bearing streams that require no-logging buffers, they’ll realize how cumbersome the current restrictions are, Partin said.
Francis Etherington is following the projects for Cascadia Wildlands, a Eugene-based environmental group that closely tracks BLM timber sales and recently settled a lawsuit with the agency over a Lakeview district timber sale.
“We aren’t quite sure what the pilot project is for,” Etherington said. “If it is successful, would it be applied over a broader landscape? ... They say the goal is to break through the gridlock, but there is no gridlock, that’s a myth.”
The BLM has sold 74 percent of its target volume in the Roseburg district without any controversy in the past three years, Etherington said, while the Coos Bay District exceeded its targets in the past three years, providing millions of board feet to mills, she said.
In fact, the BLM has steadily increased its harvest in the past decade. The 2010 harvest totaled 159.5 million board feet. Although its doesn’t approach the harvest levels of the late 1980s, it is well above the agency’s leaner years, such as 2001 when the harvest was 4.5 million board feet.
Don Morrison, a retired forestry planner with the U.S. Forest Service, said he’s more interested in the community outreach by the BLM than he is in the specifics of the pilot projects. He said it will take people who don’t agree with each other sitting down to find ways to work together to help the BLM get to a management strategy that doesn’t divide the community.
“It’s not a technical solution,” he said. “It needs a social solution.”