“Let the Big Trees Alone. Let Them Grow”

 A Report on the Board of Forestry Meeting, 25 April 2018

By Will Watson, WildCAT Volunteer.

Elliott-Tim G 61316-6820[11]

Last month, Cascadia Wildland’s staff attorney, Gabe Scott, and volunteers John Selove and I travelled up to Salem to a meeting of the Oregon State Board of Forestry. The BOF is the executive board of the Oregon Department of Forests. The ODF directly manages about 3% of Oregon’s 30 million acres of forest and provides fire protection for 16 million acres of public and private forest. Altogether, Oregon’s State Forests cover about 900,000 acres. The BOF was holding public hearings on their “Statement of Principles” for the new Forest Management Plan they are drafting, the current one having been adopted in the late 1970’s at the peak of the unsustainable logging boom that ended in the 1990’s.

I would recommend attending BOF meetings to anyone who wants to understand the stakes involved in forest management here in Oregon. The meeting was an eye opener.

Altogether, 32 witnesses testified on the Statement of Principles draft. 

The ODF’s currently funds its conservation and restoration activities through the sale of timber rights on limited lots in state forests. 98% of ODF revenues come from these sales. Clear cuts are the norm in modern logging, and there’s little if any selective cutting in state timber leases. Several times, witnesses claimed that ODF revenues and timber production are at an all-time high. Yet despite these record highs, ODF revenues are too low to achieve its conservation goals.  As one of these witnesses put it, “ODF is not going to clear cut its way out of this revenue crisis.”  All day we would hear calls for BOF to embrace a “new revenue model.”

Testimony came from a wide range of people. Hardly anyone spoke for the logging industry, although when I mentioned this as folks were milling around after the hearing, someone within earshot said, somewhat bitterly, “Don’t worry about that. The board speaks for the timber interests.”  There were a lot of private citizens and a dozen or so representatives of non-profits and NGO’s, one of whom uttered a memorable slogan: “Fish are a forest product.” Another said, “It’s easier to keep an ecosystem healthy than to restore it.” As we heard all day, from environmental pros and citizens alike, Oregonians were concerned that the “Statement of Principles” says next to nothing about climate change. Many called for ODF decisions to be based in “sound science, not revenue need.” CascWild’s own Gabe Scott warned the Board that “revenue reliance on extraction puts the board on a collision course with federal law.”

Most of the testimony we heard came from regular Oregonians, usually from rural precincts, who were living close to clear cuts, aerial spraying, road building and other logging impacts. They often identified themselves by describing the natural features of the land where they lived. They named creeks, watersheds, forests, rivers, mountains and such. Those who identified with towns came from places I later looked up on maps–Jewel, Wheeler, Garibaldi and others—so I got a geography lesson as well.

Their testimony was alarming, and often impassioned. These were people who lived every day with the ground truth of intensive logging.

All in all, the picture they painted was distressing:  too many forests in Oregon do not, in their current condition, warrant preservation. They were cut too young and replanted as close-packed, disease-and-fire-prone monoculture plantations. They’re drenched with toxins that run into creeks and rivers. They are choked with invasive species and fragmented by, according to US Forest Service figures, almost 80,000 miles of logging access roads, by far the most of any state. Streams are warming and clouded with silt and toxic runoff. Wildlife, some dangerous, are being driven into towns by aerial spraying.  

One witness, a woodlot owner from Jewel, compared stream temperature between two local creeks, finding that a shaded stream in an old forest was 10F cooler than one in a clear cut, a crucial temperature range for spawning salmon. This could be one reason why, as another witness described, salmon runs in some locations have diminished from ten per year to only one in just the last decade. Another witness complained to county commissioners about defoliants being sprayed on the local elementary school and the houses around it. She won a concession. In the future, helicopters spraying defoliants would observe a sixty foot (!) buffer zone around homes and schools. One witness, from Wheeler, on the Coast, employed a rather unsavory metaphor to describe forest management in the state. He compared Oregon to Washington and other western states and concluded that Oregon is “living in the toilet” of the West.  An environmental scientist warned that soil compaction around logging sites “made future restoration of the affected areas unlikely if not impossible.” Another witness, a wildlife photographer from Astoria, warned ominously that clearcutting was contributing to what biologists are calling “the sixth great extinction.” Over and over we felt the despair of woods-loving Oregonians who live in the middle of industrial clear cuts and destruction. 

There were exceptions, of course, like the recently protected 89,000-acre Elliott State Forest that one witness described as an example of a “new way forward” for state forest policy. However, witnesses on the ground suggest that the Oregon mountain backcountry is an industrial tree plantation more often than an actual, biodiverse forest.

The picture is not all bleak, though. Witnesses voiced all manner of smart restoration and revenue ideas. For instance, we heard several times that forest-based tourism creates 10-11x the revenue of logging. One witness encouraged, memorably “Let the big trees alone. Let them grow.”

New funding models were advanced, based on carbon trading, carbon taxes and restructuring the tax code. One witness pointed to a study that showed the Elliott Forest alone, which is only 10% of the total of state-managed forests, could sequester 3/4’s of the yearly CO2 emitted by transportation in the state. He called for the BOF to explore ways to “monetize the carbon storage capacity of Oregon’s forests.” After the hearing, I heard someone call Oregon a potential, “Saudi Arabia of carbon sequestration.”

Similarly, a Portland State professor called Oregon forest policy “a huge experiment with no control” and recommended preserving intact forests and watersheds to provide a baseline for future policy decisions. He also suggested that long-term rotation harvests on state lands could balance out the short-term rotation harvests on private lands.  Another witness called for the BOF to set aside what he called “terrestrial anchor acres” for each timber lease sold. In these, biological impact studies could be conducted in depth so that clear cut impacts could be fully understood. There was no shortage of alternatives to clearcutting in that room.

That night, back in Eugene, I kept coming back to a statement I heard repeatedly during the hearing: “The BOF is not going to clear cut its way out of this revenue shortfall.”  I wondered, darkly, at what point the state would cut the last of its big trees to pay off the revenue shortfall from trying to protect big trees, and I was reminded of a grisly old fable I had read somewhere.

A surgeon is stranded on a barren island with only his medical kit and no provisions. Starving, he begins to amputate and eat his limbs, all but his scalpel arm and hand. Then he starts in on all the organs of which we have two: kidney, eye, ear, testicle (I warned you it was grisly). Finally, there’s nothing left and he succumbs to starvation. What’s the moral for us, here in Oregon?

Well, the surgeon tried to survive by doing what he had been trained to do. And because he was so good at it, he extended his life, although at the price of eating himself alive. State forest policy is kind of like that surgeon. Here in the Beaver State, we can grow and cut trees like no one else. It’s what we do, what nature will help us do here. But the BOF must find another way to save Oregon’s state forests besides, paradoxically enough, destroying them.  

It’s time for entirely new priorities at the Board of Forestry.  Preservation, conservation, climate change, carbon storage and wildlands restoration need to be prioritized before there’s nothing left to preserve or restore. Let the big trees alone, I say. Let them grow.

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