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County timber sale is a test site for a controversial new forest policy

If a tree falls in the forest to create early seral habitat, is it still a clearcut?

That’s the question dogging ecological forestry, an experimental management approach touted by its creators as a way to ramp up timber harvests on public lands to provide badly needed jobs and tax revenues while continuing the work of restoring forest health and protecting threatened species begun by the Northwest Forest Plan.

For the various groups caught up in the region’s ongoing timber wars — public land managers and rural communities, conservationists and industry leaders — it’s much more than just an academic debate.

And, thanks to a proposed Bureau of Land Management timber sale at a place called Rainbow Ridge, it’s a debate that’s starting to play out in Benton County.

Ecological forestry is the brainchild of two prominent forestry professors, Norm Johnson of Oregon State University and the University of Washington’s Jerry Franklin. Both were among the original architects of the Northwest Forest Plan, a 1994 Clinton administration compromise aimed at breaking the political gridlock that was paralyzing timber harvests on public lands.

While preserving islands of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, the plan was supposed to provide a steady stream of timber to Pacific Northwest mills through a mix of “regeneration harvests” (clearcuts) and thinning projects aimed at restoring a healthy forest.

In practice, however, the volume of logging has remained well below previous levels, with thinning projects far outpacing clearcuts as public land managers work to restore old-growth characteristics in even-age tree plantations.

One of the unintended consequences of that restoration approach, Franklin and Johnson argue, is that we’re continuing to deprive forests of something they need to be healthy: early seral habitat.

Early seral habitat is the sort of shrub and flower plant community found in natural forest openings caused by fires, storms and other disturbances before they fill up with trees again. Such openings benefit a host of animals, from butterflies and songbirds to deer and elk, but they are notably absent from both industrial and restoration forestry.

Ecological forestry uses a technique called variable retention harvesting to create large openings for early seral habitat while preserving islands and corridors of older trees for forest-dependent species.

The result, Franklin and Johnson hope, will be a management plan that satisfies the twin goals of the Northwest Forest Plan: providing a sustained timber yield to support the economy while protecting threatened species and restoring old growth.

The Benton experiment

Under a program announced in 2010 by the secretary of the interior, three ecological forestry pilot projects are already under way in Southern Oregon on the Bureau of Land Management’s Coos Bay, Roseburg and Medford districts.

But those are all predominantly dry forests, and Franklin and Johnson wanted to test their theories in a wetter environment. That’s where Rainbow Ridge comes in.

Located in the Coast Range about 8 miles west of Monroe, the proposed timber sale consists of three previously logged tracts of primarily Douglas fir, with some Western hemlock and bigleaf maple mixed in.

The biggest unit, at 91 acres, is about 60 years old. There’s also a 37-acre unit that was planted 40 years ago and 10 acres of 110-year-old trees. The proposal calls for variable retention harvest and commercial thinning on about 120 acres.

“This is the stand we’ve been looking for for two years,” Johnson said on Tuesday, speaking to a diverse group of interested observers who had gathered to tour the site and learn about the concepts of ecological forestry.

“It is the least controversial place, I think, in the BLM that we could have one of these harvests,” Johnson added. “If we can’t do it here ... roll up the sidewalks, ’cause we’re not going to be able to do it anywhere.”

No easy answers

Some of the controversy over ecological forestry burst to the surface during Tuesday’s tour of the project site, where Bureau of Land Management officials outlined a plan that would involve logging large swaths of timber to create early seral habitat while leaving several smaller ribbons and patches of intact forest.

Rich Hatfield, field manager for BLM’s Marys Peak resource area, said the experiment was worth trying.

If it works, it could pave the way for a reliable flow of timber from federal lands while still providing environmental protections. Under the status quo, he argued, his agency could run out of viable thinning projects altogether in 20 to 30 years.

“I could thin this under the Northwest Forest Plan,” Hatfield said. “But I don’t think that’s responsible, to keep kicking the can down the road for future generations to deal with.”

But Chandra LeGue, an activist with the conservation group Oregon Wild, challenged that position. Given how little unlogged forest remains, she said, public agencies such as the BLM and the Forest Service should be focusing on restoring old-growth characteristics, not finding new ways to clearcut under the guise of mimicking natural disturbances.

“I understand you want to be in business and probably will be, but for this forest to have a healthy mix of stand types I think is what we should be shooting for,” she told Hatfield.

“We need early seral,” Franklin interjected. “If this is harvested, will there be less life? Hell, no — there will be much more life!”

And Gordon Culbertson of Forest2Market, which supplies financial data to the wood products industry, jumped in with his take on public forest management.

“Keep in mind that we’re standing in a 60-year-old clearcut on a road that was built to haul timber,” he said.

Taking sides

The exchange illustrates the diversity of opinion that still surrounds — and encumbers — federal forest policy in the Pacific Northwest.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, who represents Oregon’s heavily timber-dependent 4th District, has been one of the most enthusiastic congressional champions of ecological forestry.

He sees it as an opportunity to pump badly needed revenues into the cash-strapped counties he represents, some of which have been pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by the steep decline in timber receipts from federal lands.

“This is much, much more sophisticated than the Northwest Forest Plan,” DeFazio said. “The Northwest Forest Plan is basically old-fashioned save-and-sacrifice forestry, with a lot more save and a lot less sacrifice.”

He also believes Franklin and Johnson’s new approach provides significant environmental benefits that should satisfy the conservation community, and he thinks Rainbow Ridge offers an ideal testing ground.

“Anybody opposing that is saying you can’t harvest anywhere,” DeFazio said.

But Oregon Wild’s LeGue calls the variable retention harvests espoused by ecological forestry “kinder, gentler clearcuts” and says the benefits to be derived from creating early seral habitat remain to be proven.

“Those old-growth forests that we’re trying to grow back right now, those are still the most important thing,” she said.

And while her organization probably will not try to block the Rainbow Ridge timber sale, she and others at Oregon Wild have been alarmed by the push to expand ecological forestry beyond the initial three pilot projects announced in 2010.

“There’s a lot of pressure coming down on BLM to do more logging, and Norm and Jerry are not immune to that,” LeGue said. “Our public lands provide us with so many things other than timber, and I think those things should come first.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, opposition is also coming from the other end of the political spectrum.

Andy Geisler of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry lobbying group, has paid close attention to the debate over ecological forestry. On last week’s tour of the Rainbow Ridge timber sale, he dismissed the BLM’s pilot projects as “dipping a toe in the waters.”

Council Vice President Ann Forest Burns said the organization has no problems with the approach in theory. The problem is that it’s being carried out on far too small a scale to either improve forest health or restore the flow of timber from public lands.

“If we would actually do what the Northwest Forest Plan said we should do, we would be harvesting three times as much timber,” Burns said. “But instead of dealing with that, we’re moving to yet another experiment.”

Still in the fight

After so many years in the trenches of the forest policy wars, Franklin and Johnson are used to the sniping. But instead of ducking yet another fight, they’re stepping back into the political free-fire zone to make the case for ecological forestry.

“I’ve never proposed anything before that everybody hated,” Johnson chuckled. “But I’ve done it here.”

Like his colleague, Johnson thinks it’s an idea worth fighting for, but he admits it could be a tough sell, especially to environmentalists who see variable retention harvesting as just another kind of clearcutting.

“You’ve really got to view the forest through a new frame to pull this off,” he acknowledged. “It’s not forest destruction, but forest renewal.”

In an overgrown patch of 40-year-old fir trees at Rainbow Ridge, Franklin struggled to explain the distinction.

He talked about his research at Mount St. Helens, where the devastation of a volcanic eruption has been followed by an explosion of biodiversity, and his desire to develop a new silivicultural tool that would allow forest managers to mimic nature’s methods of regeneration.

“You have to think of those aggregates as a part of the harvest unit, not apart from the harvest unit,” he said.

“It is a challenge — and it’s a challenge to foresters, too, because we’re used to stands that are all of one species and all of one age and all of one structure.

“Theoretically, it ought to work,” he shrugged. “It seemed to work for nature.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald