I Was Wrong: A Reexamination of Active Forest Management
By Isabel Max
Growing up in Bend, I am trapped in a blissful bubble. Political oblivion clouds my community like the advection fog that rides in with the upslope winds and 40-somethings escaping the city. It sits on Century Drive on the way up to Mt. Bachelor. It waits, ironically at ease, in line as the rest of Bend honks their horns –– a learned response from their time in Seattle or San Francisco, no doubt –– as if their “The Mountain is Calling and I Must Go” bumper sticker is truer of their own Subaru than the Subaru their tailgating.
Bend is a playground of natural resources, but growing up, it was just my playground. I built stick forts in the Deschutes National Forest bordering my house, climbed Ponderosa pines far too high for my mom’s comfort and ran on trails that snake through the trees. While I approach my 18th birthday knowing no other than the tree-rich Oregon, the Seneca Scholarship’s expectation that students “know nothing about Oregon’s forest management” is true of me. So, clouded in oblivion, I set out to discover more about the benefits of active forest management on the forest and community. My ignorance was unveiled by the knowledge of an educator, a biologist and a lumber president. Their lessons proved invaluable, and my reaction proved unexpected.
My initial research was probably some of the most impressionable because it uncovered masses of information I didn’t know. Admittedly overwhelmed, I started with the lowest hanging fruit to prepare myself for the tree I was about to climb. A quick Google search of “active forest management” already corrected a false premise I held. I had thought “active forest management” was a euphemistic label for uninhibited tree cutting (the Disney Pixar antagonist O’Hare, from The Lorax, came to mind). I was wrong.
My first interview, with Julie Woodward, senior manager of Forestry Education at the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI), provided me with the foundation I didn’t yet know was crucial for the bulk of my research. My opening question exposed my lack of knowledge, and Julie laughed an involuntary laugh. Then, she taught me.
Looking back at the history of forest in Oregon, we can see active forest management is a necessary solution to sustaining the ecosystem. Central Oregon forests, before the large scale human involvement that came with settling the area, had a natural cycle of fire and regrowth. Lodgepole pine would sprout between large Ponderosa pines to form the underlayer of the flora. Every five to 10 years, fires would sweep the forest floor, burning the lodgepole, leaving the more fire-resistant Ponderosas standing. The result of the intermittent fires was a natural thinning process. Thinning, Woodward explained, reduces the competition among trees for sun and water. When the competition is too high, the trees become infected. They die standing, increasing the potential magnitude of fire. “Think about it like stress,” she said. “If you are really stressed, that tends to be when you catch a cold or the flu, and the same goes for trees and flammability.”
The natural process of eliminating competition was interrupted in the late nineteenth century, when Central Oregon trees became a known economic opportunity. “All of Central Oregon is founded on the timber industry,” said Sisters Ranger District wildlife biologist Monty Gregg. “There was a mill in every town.” Private timber companies owned most of the forest land by 1870. Their objective was profiting from its harvest; they clearcut the land and then sold it to the federal government when it was no longer profitable.
By 1905, the U.S. government owned most of the Oregon forest, and the newly-established USDA Forest Service had a lot of work to do. “It looked like a bomb had gone off,” Gregg said.
The condition of the forest got worse before it got better. “[The Forest Service] planted the trees, knowing that was a good practice,” Woodward said. “But in that same event, they took out of a natural system this thinning, this burning, the practice of reducing the competition.” That’s when the fires started.
Because of the risk fires posed to the communities and to the economy, which was dependent on wood, the Forest Service advocated fire suppression. “Because of fire suppression, the stand density [the crowding of the forest floor] across all the fire regimes is so big that once a fire starts, they don’t act in a natural way and they burn the entire forest,” Gregg explained. Overgrowth of the underlayer creates a ladder to the canopy of the Ponderosa pines, starting the catastrophic “crown” fires.
Three crown fires took place from 1930 to 1950. The Forest Service decided it needed to change its approach.
Now, the Forest Service recognizes the need for active forest management: a practice that attempts to restore the historic fire regimes on which our forests depend. “We’re trying to right the ship again,” Gregg said. “We’ve inherited a mess that we’ve been taking care of for the last 80 years.”
The Forest Service isn’t alone in its restoration mission. Half of the state of Oregon is forested, Woodward said, and is divided among various landowners. The landowners range from public, under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), to private family forest landholders. “Active forest management of the forest is based on the objectives of the owners, and what their forest looks like,” Woodward said.
To be honest, my immediate reaction was, there’s the catch. While the Forest Service aligns their management goals with sustainability, what’s to stop private landholders from stripping their forest for fiscal gain, acting in the same way their forefathers did?
The answer, Woodward explained, is the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA). In 1971, Oregon became the first state to create a comprehensive set of rules that govern the practice of public and private forestry. The law acknowledges the universal benefits of the Oregon forests –– clean air, high quality of water, thriving habitats –– and aims to protect them. The laws include mandating reforestation and water protection, properly engineering forest roads, and regulating harvest.
If I had any reservation about active forest management, the majority of it stemmed from my perception of clear cutting. I remember the drive to a family friend’s house, through the Deschutes National Forest. It was the first time I was big enough to see the ground out of the Toyota Sienna window. I looked out to an area of forest that had no forest. The light rings of stumps glistened in their newfound sunlight, polka-dotting the wet soil. My confusion cut through what I knew, and I felt like the stumps; exposed under the light of a new experience. I asked my dad why there were no trees there but the sign still called it a forest and a forest has trees. The disgust in his voice made the c’s in his answer cacophonous: “Clearcutting.”
Since then, cacophony is all I hear when someone speaks of clearcutting. It rang in my ears when Woodward first said the word, leaving me visibly unsettled. Luckily, we were talking over the phone.
Clearcutting, Woodward went on to explain, actually means that human materialism and forest conservation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The 35 percent of the Oregon forest that is privately owned is “all managed depending on what that landowner objective is, but also meeting society’s criteria through the Oregon practice rules,” she said.
My attention sharpened and her new information came to the forefront of my mind. It clicked. Private companies, which now operate under OFPA guidelines, reap the economic benefit of clearcutting in a way that is sustainable. She explained that Douglas fir trees, for example, are sun-loving; the trees grow back quicker in open spaces and actually benefit from the clearcut method. “Even though the forest is being used for social values, like the wood, that young forest provides a habitat for a whole different set of wildlife,” she said. That is why the Forest Service practices clearcutting. “We selectively harvest the forest to reduce fuel loadings, to build resilience in our forest,” Gregg said. What’s more, the money the Forest Service makes from harvest stays in the forest. “We use commercial timber sale as a tool to thin the larger trees, and then we take the revenue associated with that timber sale and put that into the noncommercial thinning,” the act of removing small trees with no commercial value.
The process of thinning and cutting the forest “isn’t a ‘one and done,’” he said. Once the cutting process achieves historic forest density, the active management continues with prescribed natural fire to thin the underbrush, mimicking historic fire regimes. “It’s all about spatially arranging the forest to benefit native species and reducing risks for fire for the community,” Gregg said.
In the event of a wildfire, clearcutting is also an important step to post-fire management. Gregg explained that burned Ponderosa pines still have value in a short period of time before disease and insects damage their potential for profit. In an effort to fund reforestation and expedite tree growth, the salvageable trees are selectively commercially harvested. If forest experts determine that it will be too difficult for trees to grow back on their own, they manually replant the area using the commercial funds, as well as appropriated dollars from a Forest Health Protection federal grant.
The area’s survival is monitored and reexamined after a two-year period. If survival rate is low, it is up to biologists like Gregg figure out why, allowing for a better course of action for second or third replantings.
“We can’t fireproof,” Woodward said, “but we can certainly manage for a forest that is more resistant or durable for when a fire starts.”
Yet again, I found my original understanding to be unfounded. And yet again, the experts corrected my misconception. I know now that clearcutting, as guided by Oregon forest practice laws, is a necessary part of active forest management, and its repercussions on the community and the forest are positive. With OFPA in place, even private landowners have to align their objectives with sustainability.
“Yes, wood is a product that society has deemed useful, but it’s also a product we know still stores carbon and is found to be a green building material,” Woodward said. “And it’s our only building material that’s renewable.”
That’s not news to Valerie Johnson, the President of DR Johnson Lumber Company. “I think [lumber companies] get a bad rap, as if we’re just completely spinning a whole hillside just for today and then moving on. That’s not the case,” Johnson said. “We never leave. It’s the law and it should be the law. Even on private timber. You have to go back. You have to replant. You have to do it right.”
Johnson, who graciously gave me her time over a weekend, leads sustainable innovation in the American construction industry from her family-owned company out of small-town Riddle, Oregon. DR Johnson is the first U.S. lumber company to be certified to produce cross-laminated timber (CLT), a wood product that rivals concrete and steel as a building material. Innovation in wood products, like CLT, highlights another benefit of active forest management on the community. As public concern for unsustainable building rises, CLT is increasingly relevant.
Johnson’s volunteering to create test panels of CLT for Oregon State University progressed into DR Johnson providing the framework for a 12-story Portland building, an environmental innovation of wood building on a scale unmatched in the United States. While that particular project was ultimately shelved, the design and research that came out showcased what is possible, and since then DR Johnson has taken on many CLT projects. “People who are concerned about the environment should be our biggest champions,” Johnson said.
Not only does CLT pose a solution for sustainable building, but, “without a doubt,” an addition to the job market, Johnson said. While the number of employees in the logging industry has shrunk considerably, Johnson said her employee count has tripled since the addition of CLT to DR Johnson. “This is a very positive development for the natural environment and the work environment,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a win-win.”
As part of a generation that is in desperate need for large-scale environmental innovation, I could see CLT as a necessary step toward promoting the longevity of our natural resources. I was pleased to hear active forest management in the private sector corroborate Gregg’s proclamation that managing the forest “isn’t a ‘one and done.’”
“This isn’t just a ‘make a quick buck’ kind of attitude at all,” Johnson said. “It’s a long range outlook on how to do things right.”
Over my short run of researching, I have learned that active forest management isn’t a quick fix but a research-based practice rooted in longevity: This represents a 180-degree turn from what I had thought before. Now, “I hope that people who have made up their minds when they were 20 years old, 30 years ago that cutting a tree was a bad thing would take another look at the fact that the lumber industry is changing significantly for the better,” as Johnson said.
Beginning in 2021, the International Building Code will codify construction of CLT buildings up to 18 stories tall. “I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that we’re doing what we are now,” Johnson said. “You never say never.”
Never saying never, I will leave Bend’s blissful bubble this August and head to the East Coast. When the plane takes off from the Redmond airport, I will look out the window and remember the lessons I learned from an educator, a biologist and a lumber president. I’ll remember my roots; the trees that allowed me an exceptional childhood. I’ll remember to continually examine my premises, because they could very well be misconstrued. While studying Public Policy at Princeton University, an opportunity afforded to me by cross-country running, I will bring with me a newfound pride for my home, the tree-rich Oregon. More importantly, I’ll bring with me the knowledge to comprehend –– and defend –– the system that ensures its future: active forest management.
Before I entered the forestry field in college, I was born and raised in a rural logging community in Southwestern Oregon. Nearly every day I would see a log truck pass on the road or see an active logging operation occurring in the distant forest on the outskirts of town. Unfortunately, I also lived near a state-owned forest, The Elliott State Forest, which was used to create profit from logging to support the local schools, also known as the Common School Fund. Due to habitat loss for endangered species, such as the Marbled Murrelet, that live within the forest, all operations came to a halt and have not begun since. Growing up, I spent many days in this forest, camping, fishing, hunting, and overall enjoying nature, not realizing what effect inactive logging on the Elliott was doing to the forest itself, and to the surrounding communities. As I became aware of the circumstances in my high school career, I was intrigued to learn more about the Elliott Forest, as well as the general scope of forestry practices; therefore, the reasoning in pursuing a degree and career in forest management, and to learn the real benefits of active forest management on the forest and communities.
The Elliott State Forest is located North of Coos Bay, Oregon and covered approximately 93,000 acres of forested land, even portions that include an old growth reserve site. Before the year 2013, only approximately 1% of the Elliott was harvested annually and generated possibly millions of dollars that funded the local schools. In July of 2012 was when a lawsuit was filed against the protection of endangered species, now costing Oregon schools millions of dollars in lost funding due to the forced termination of logging operations in the Elliott Forest. Since the year 2013, local schools that relied on the Common School Fund and the Elliott State Forest’s profit are now suffering from the loss of funds. Although the state of Oregon is working to resolve issues related to the Elliott Forest, multiple lawsuits are being filed after each attempt to create revenue, including selling portions and revoking offers to sell after bids have been made.
In Oregon’s working forests, sustainably producing timber adds approximately $12 billion to Oregon’s economy and generates over 58,000 jobs across nearly 11 million acres (“Working Forests”, 2020). Contrastingly, the termination of logging operations causes an extreme loss of jobs within the local community, causing detrimental effects on the local economy. Full time jobs that included everything from timber fallers, equipment operators, land managers, tree planters, mill workers, and others suffered from the loss of timber harvest (Carr, C., 2020). Recently in 2018 I worked as a general laborer and log buyer intern at the GeorgiaPacific sawmill in Coos Bay. With my experience working alongside the log buyer for the company, most of the incoming logs that summer were imported wood that arrived on a barge due to the lack of locally sourced wood. In the early 1990’s, there were approximately 299 million board feet of wood coming from local Coos and Douglas counties, whereas in 2017 only about 80 million board feet, nearly what was harvested on Elliott State Forest land alone in years past, was harvested in the same locations. This loss of timber volume was enough to supply two sawmills the size of Georgia-Pacific in Coos Bay. In 2019, Georgia-Pacific sawmill in Coos Bay took its last run of logs and shipped out its final products as it was shut down. This in turn created an overall loss of 111 jobs in Coos Bay that will likely never return (Steensen, 2019).
These scenarios have detailed the detrimental effects of termination of active logging and forest management in local communities. From these situations, we can gather how important active forest management is to the local economy and community overall. Active forest management creates jobs for individuals throughout the community that may not be “boots on the ground” workers, in the field, but in an office managing what operations are occurring, keeping track of forest policies, or estimating the log market and what timber is worth. The influx of jobs in the community generates a healthy economy, where money is flowing well and community members are more likely to spend greater amounts in their surrounding areas.
Not only will the community reap the benefits of active forest management, but the forest and surrounding areas will as well. Active forest management creates space in the forest and surrounding areas, removing competing vegetation, allowing for trees to increase their growth rate more efficiently and effectively (Harkins, S., 2020). A basic forest management plan consists of a general timeline with planting, herbicide application to eliminate competing vegetation, thinning, and a final harvest at the biological rotation age (Carr, C., 2020). The active management of the forest also helps prevent the spread of some insects and disease with incorporation of mixed species planting (Harkins, R., 2020). In my own personal experience working as an intern forester for Roseburg Forest Products in 2019, my project dealt with the redwood tree plantations on their property to cease the spread of Swiss Needle Cast between Roseburg’s Douglas-fir plantations; therefore showing the positive impact and role that active forest management is playing in the forests. Currently, the Coquille Indian Tribe is managing their forest lands to benefit the local native communities by incorporating trees such as Western Red Cedar for the natives traditional and cultural needs, such as basketry (Harkins, R., 2020). Over the entire state of Oregon, there are nine federally recognized native tribes, many of which benefit from these practices directly or through trade (Harkins, R., 2020).
In the forest plantation landscape, with the removal of competing vegetation such as invasive species like blackberry, scotch broom, and gorse is also removing potential wildfire fuel. Here in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires are severe and potentially detrimental to the forest ecosystem, as well as the surrounding communities. In recent year 2018, Oregon has had over 800 fires in the summer fire season, all of which caused extensive damage to the forest, and some of which to the community. With active forest management and its practice of removing excess vegetation, wildfires will change directions, travel and burn slower, and be caught sooner, preventing extensive damage to the forest and community. Active forest management also promotes healthy vegetation and removes other fuels such as down woody debris and standing dead trees (Rands, 2019). With this removal of natural fire events, forest management will occasionally include prescribed fire that burns most of the grasses and small vegetation along the forest floor, adding nutrients into the soil while also removing the competing vegetation; overall benefiting the trees being managed. This process allows for the forest to still have to mimicked event of fire and the benefits, without getting out of control and causing more negative than positive effects. The U.S. Forest Service has adopted this management practice and uses it on site areas where wildfire can be high severity and intensity, and near communities to prevent catastrophic events. Other similar practices include piling woody debris such as branches, tree pieces, vegetation, and other fuels, and burning them to remove the fuel and risk of wildfire (Rands, 2019).
Another concern in recent years has been carbon sequestration and storage in forests. With most active forest management regime plans, carbon sequestration is an added benefit in most cases. In other cases, there is active forest management with special adaptations to preserve the carbon storage using various tree species, harvesting practices for less disturbance, and occasionally some leave-sites that are still managed but not harvested on an average rotation (Ontl, 2020). The benefits for managing carbon sequestration can include a healthier atmosphere and surrounding ecosystem, as well as creating habitat for unique species within forested environments that are “leave-sites” preserving some of the sequestered carbon. In addition to the added benefits to the physical environment and community, forest managers and owners who manage for carbon sequestration can receive carbon credits, which provides another source of revenue as the carbon is being stored (O’Connor, 2018), therefore generating more income and economic benefit from active forest management.
In conclusion, active forest management is a necessity to a healthy forest ecosystem, as well as to surrounding communities that benefit from the influx of jobs that support the local economy. The impact of reduced forest management and harvesting practices was shown in my local area with the loss of a local state forest, as well as a sawmill. These two events are both interrelated and the cause of extensive job losses in the community that multiple families rely on. Each interviewee stated similar opinions on active forest management; it is a fundamental practice that provides a way of life for most individuals, while helping the environment and economy simultaneously. This statement was justified easily using data from the state of Oregon, proving the job count and profit for a specific year, and by using information detailing the Oregon Forest Practices that is integrated into local forest management to insure a sustainable and healthy forest environment. In addition to required forest management practices, other forms of revenue can be generated using carbon credits that are obtained with specialized forest management practices, although this is a recent practice and is a current researched advancement for active forest management. In closing remarks, it is undeniable how sustainable active forest management benefits the community and forest; from individuals and the animals, to wildfires and competing vegetation, active forest management enhances the positive natural effects, and decreases the negative natural effects, establishing the ideal forest and surrounding environment.