Seeking balance in Oregon’s timber country (More on “ecological forestry”)

That’s the title of a High Country News article from April 29. It is subscription only and very long. A couple of excerpts in which Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson’s version of “ecological forestry” is discussed:

Along with his old-growth research, Franklin pioneered a “new forestry” that revolutionized federal logging practices in the ’90s — setting basic standards like leaving dead snags and legacy trees for habitat after a clearcut.

Franklin’s more recent “ecological forestry” goes further. Larger patches of the best habitat — 20 to 40 percent of the stand — are left undisturbed while the rest is cleared to let smaller trees and shrubs fill in, creating “early seral” habitat that’s high in biodiversity, with leafy plants for deer and elk, and flowers and fruit for birds and butterflies. Franklin is concerned that there’s not enough of this habitat in the Northwest because clear-cuts on state and private land are managed more like plantations than forests: Almost everything is mowed down and sprayed with herbicide so that only replanted trees will grow — an industrial model that shortcuts natural development.

The new method tries to mimic natural disturbances like wildfire and lets the forest recover more naturally. “It’s an evolution in what we were thinking about under the Northwest Forest Plan,” Franklin says. Back then, the focus was on saving the old growth; now, he says, it’s the young forest that needs help, in part because there’s been so little traditional logging on federal lands over the last decade.

Under the Northwest Forest Plan, clearcuts — “regeneration harvests” in forester terms — left more trees than an industrial cut but still provoked strong protests. In response, the BLM tried to meet timber targets by thinning crowded plantations to restore forests. But thinning provides less wood per acre and less return to agencies and county budgets. And some fear that the BLM will simply run out of forest to thin within the next couple decades. That’s why Franklin wants to begin again with higher-volume, regeneration harvests.

“We need a dedicated land base for sustainable wood production on the federal lands, and this is part of it,” Franklin says. The White Castle sale would produce 6.4 million board-feet of timber, slightly less than if it were cut under the normal standards of the Northwest Forest Plan, but 20 times more than if it were simply thinned. A recent study by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office shows that ecological forestry could satisfy the Northwest Forest Plan’s target of 203 million board-feet for the O&C lands into the future, while continued thinning would fall short and eventually dry up.

However, some environmentalists are not buying this approach (which is not surprising, but how long will the public buy crying wolf about clearcutting and old growth?).

“The White Castle project is a cynical attempt to pass off clear-cutting century-old trees as restoration,” said Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild in a press release. “In reality, the true focus of this project is providing cheap timber to old-growth dependent logging mills at taxpayer expense.”

Environmentalists fear that this project could clear the way for more of this sort of “active management” in old-forest owl habitat. They say mature forests on their way to developing into old growth should not be sacrificed especially when impacts to struggling spotted owls are unclear. In December, the BLM dismissed the protest, but the groups appealed.

“Orwellian doublespeak, my ass,” Franklin retorts. He accuses his critics of distorting the terms of the debate. Under more traditional definitions, the project is neither a clear-cut nor is it in old growth, generally said to be at least 180 years old. Yet with all of the ancient stands essentially off the table, the new fight in Westside forests is over the 80- to 160-year-old future old-growth forests. “This is really where the battle is going to be fought out,” Franklin says.

Meanwhile, industry groups say the pilots don’t provide enough timber to satisfy the O&C lands’ promise of logs to support the counties.

“Of all the issues I’ve worked on, this particular one has angered the widest spectrum of people — just about everyone,” Johnson says. He sees the pilot projects as a policy test for a new management paradigm that challenges the divide between forest reserves and timber harvest areas. That schism, he says, harkens all the way back to the split between John Muir’s preservationist ideals and Gifford Pinchot’s utilitarian forestry, which laid the foundation for federal land management.

The pilot harvest model demands that foresters abandon plantation forestry but requires environmentalists to accept that some types of logging — beyond thinning — can be ecologically beneficial. “We’re asking people to look at that and not see forest destruction but see forest renewal — and that’s hard,” says Johnson. “This is really fundamentally rethinking our philosophy of how we conserve and manage forests.”

Well, federal forests. It’s a middle ground, say Franklin and Johnson, between intensively managed private timberlands and reserves on federal ground. I support this approach, though I’d still like to see at least a pilot trust established to oversee harvesting and management of Matrix areas.

Good work from High Country News. In his Editor’s Note, Paul Larmer says the “Historic Northwest Forest Plan needs a careful overhaul.” I think this is open access:



39 thoughts on “Seeking balance in Oregon’s timber country (More on “ecological forestry”)”

  1. “How long will the public buy crying wolf about clearcutting and old growth?”

    Seriously? Are you aware of what is actually going on in the Oregon landscape?

    The fact is that there’s probably plenty of early seral habitat in the western Oregon landscape, and if there isn’t, it should be created through serious reform of the troglodytic Oregon Forest Practices Act, not by degrading mature native forest habitat in the public estate – a habitat which we _know_ is underrepresented.

    Franklin’s analysis around creating early seral habitat as an ecological reason for a new round of clearcutting in the BLM checkerboard only works if the Federal lands are analyzed as if in a vacuum.

    But guess what. The checkerboard is a checkerboard. The BLM lands are not an island.

    It appears – and sounds, in some of my discussions with him – that Franklin is now thinking politically, not ecologically.

      • This is an example of a political-economic statement, rather than an ecological statement:

        “We need a dedicated land base for sustainable wood production on the federal lands, and this is part of it,” Franklin says.

        Your quote below where Franklin says, “You, collectively — society, are the ones who have to make that decision.” is lovely.

        My experience, as illustrated with the span of these two quotes, is that Professor Franklin goes back and forth between a pure ecological perspective, and a perspective in which consideration in the ecological frame is bounded by by non-ecological political-economic factors.

        Nothing wrong with going both ways – ultimately, we all have to – unless the externally-bounded findings are treated as if they are simply ecological. When that happens, it can be very misleading.

        • Kevin, not to be pedantic, nor to pick on you specifically, but what is a “pure ecological perspective” as applied to forests?

    • Yes, Kevin, I am aware of what is actually going on in the Oregon landscape. I live in Oregon in a part of that forested landscape, in a rural community nearly surrounded by the the Mt. Hood National Forest, along with a few large parcels of private timberland.

      Here’s a quote from an interview I conducted with Franklin and Johnson, which appeared in the Nov. 2011 edition of The Forestry Source — I’m the editor. Note that Franklin is NOT talking about harvesting old growth, but younger forests:

      Franklin: “One of the important justifications for the regeneration harvesting is to begin again to develop some early-successional ecosystems, because we’re simply not creating those any longer. That condition is disappearing on federal lands. On private lands, the reforestation is so aggressive that it essentially does not allow the development of those early-successional ecosystems, either — ecosystems that are highly diverse, both in terms of plants and animals, and have a lot of habitat specialists.

      “Another reason for these regeneration harvests is to produce some wood, but it’s all done in the context of adopting a new silvicultural system that involves the management of mixed-age, mixed-species stands on longer rotations. The development of early-successional ecosystems is a key part of that larger silvicultural system, and we’ve justified it ecologically on the basis that we have a developmental stage that is no longer being created, that is below the historical range of variability.”

      • At the risk of plunging into Oregon stuff, I would understand what Jerry is saying is that there are plants’n’critters in an early successional habitat that is not managed intensively for timber production (e.g, stands with “brush”), that are different from those in “intensively managed for timber” and in “old growth.”

        The checkerboard doesn’t work because the other landowners don’t produce the habitat of “early successional casually managed for some timber as well as other things.”

        • No worries, the article under discussion is mostly about Oregon stuff.

          I’d say “the checkerboard doesn’t work because” the private industrial timber squares have been strip-mined, as readily seen in the Google satellite views around Eugene, and in this aerial photo I got to snap:

          This short-rotation plantation approach is allowed, arguably encouraged, by the outdated Oregon Forest Practices Act. Meanwhile the industry timber owners are exempted from most taxes, a really key fact I didn’t see mentioned in the HCN article.

          Whether one’s concerns are primarily ecological, primarily economic, or a firmly committed mixture of both (like mine), the real problems of the O&C checkerboard and the real solutions to them cry out for attention to both the public and the private sections.

  2. The issue of providing wood fiber to meet the needs of a population growing beyond 300 million seems to be ignored in the forest management debate as does the role of forests in collecting, storing and releasing water, especially critical in the West. Franklin and Johnson have spent years attempting to use good peer reviewed science to craft management directions to meet the direction of Congress while also blending in the needs of other life forms. In my opinion it is time to quit the rhetoric and hyperbola, look at the need for renewable resources for a growing population, determine what the public lands can contribute on a sustained basis, and get on with the stewardship needed to meet the production goals. This does not by any stretch of the imagination mean returning to the old ways, it does mean dealing with the reality of human needs as well as wants.

    • This reference to “the direction of Congress” keeps coming up in conversations here.

      There two cases in which “the direction of Congress” seems particularly meaningful:

      1) If one is Federal employee, and it is the nature of one’s job to be guided by the direction of Congress.

      2) If one happens to like what the direction of Congress is at the time of discussion, and would like to hold it as an authority to preclude further discussion on the point.

      However, I am not a Federal employee (though I have worked on state and federal contracts, and have a small state retirement account). My perspective is that Congress works for the American people. The work product of the U.S. Congress is naturally imperfect (as is ours), and it is inherently appropriate for we the people to exercise our freedom to review “the direction of Congress” and, when necessary and appropriate, to ask for it to be changed.

      That’s why to me, “the direction of Congress” is not a meaningful point of authority in and of itself. Always worth noting, rarely worth taking as a given.

      • I’m up for not precluding discussion of changing NEPA or ESA but it seems to me that we should consistently treat statements of Congress as 1) to be respected as they are currently law or 2) to be improved, or both..

        The FS currently needs to “obey the law” and MUSYA is a law. And as Andy says, these laws don’t actually conflict but I think that the overlap in the Venn diagram.

    • John says “providing wood fiber to meet the needs of a population growing …”
      This is a function that the market is supposed to solve. Use prices to match supply and demand. And it can do this but we need to fix a few things. There are “externalities” which means that some of the costs of production are not reflected in the prices that consumer pay for wood. Externalities include: polluted water, spoiled vistas, destabilized climate, endangered species, etc. Wood is under-priced resulting in excessive demand and artificially high supply. If prices reflected the full cost of production, prices would be higher, people would be more judicious in their use of wood, and demand would be lower. We don’t need public lands to meet demand for wood. We need public lands to meet demand for clean water, habitat, carbon storage, recreation, scenic beauty, etc.

      • Yes, and there are serious “externalties” for embracing man-enhanced catastrophic wildfires. Timber projects stay out of sensitive streamcourses. Wildfires don’t. Timber projects stay out of endangered species habitats. Wildfires don’t. Timber projects stay out of cultural sites. Wildfires don’t. Finally, timber projects stay out of private lands. Wildfires don’t. I could go on but….

      • And when less timber is cut in the US, we import more from Canada and elsewhere, “externalizing” an economic benefit of using domestic timber.

        • Tree brought up some excellent points about the fact that many of the expenses associated with logging public lands are bore either by the taxpayers or by the ecological function of the ecosystem itself.

          Also, can we please have a discussion about over-consumption here? For some in the timber industry to sit back and try and tell us that the timber industry is simply supplying what’s in demand and if we don’t log the trees in the US we MUST log elsewhere is just complete garbage…and just one small example of why many of the world’s economies are on the brink of collapse.

          The timber industry, just like the oil and gas industry and the coal industry and all the industries that produce cheap, throw-away plastic crap from China…all these industries promote, cause and rely on massive wastefulness and over-consumption to make put a buck in their pockets and/or make their shareholders happy.

          Can anyone of the timber industry supporters here give me just one example of anyone in the timber industry speaking out publicly warning Americans about the over-consumption and over-development of America’s housing market (and also retail, office and commercial buildings)? Did anyone in the timber industry say one peep about the approaching burst of the housing bubble? Or did these folks just continue to log and mill so the builders and contractors could continue to over-building and over-develop? Another example? How about the auto industry working hand-in-glove with Big Oil to fight for decades against higher fuel economy standards in the US?

          Look around just about any part of the US and you’ll see the results of over-consumption and over-development. We have millions of homes, apartments, condos, office buildings, strip malls and commercial spaces sitting empty and falling further into disrepair day-by-day.

          And in this real-world economic context we want to talk simplistically about how if we don’t log it in the US we’ll just log it somewhere else?

          • Not to mention the current high level level of sawlog exports from the U.S. – notably, from Oregon in particular – sourced both from private industrial harvests, and from trees logged on public land and laundered through minimal processing.

              • Surely the esteemed readers of this blog are familiar with the practice of “minimal processing” of Federally-sourced logs for legal or quasi-legal export?

                • Many might be, but I am not due to living in Colorado.. not sure anyone is exporting 10 inch dead lodgepole.

                  • Okay, right. Examples of ‘minimal processing’ for export include squaring a log with minimum cuts on three sides, or cutting as little as possible to make large slabs, knowing that these log-sized hunks are intended for resawing overseas into many smaller pieces of end-use lumber.

                    Another practice, said to be growing, which similarly puts the domestic industry into a third-world-type role of supplying just the raw stuff, while value-added processing happens elsewhere, is the export of raw veneers, to be made into plywood in China or elsewhere, then sometimes shipped back here for construction.

                    I observed a similar structural phenomenon in the Brazilian marble and granite industry, fighting the loss of value-added to China, during a research trip some years ago:

                    “For instance, in the past Japanese companies would purchase rough blocks of Brazilian stone, ship them to China for cutting and finishing with cheap labor, then import finished products to Japan for use in construction. More recently, Chinese companies import blocks and rough slabs of Brazilian stone directly, then manufacture finished products and export them cheaply to countries like the United States…”

                    “…With such trends in alignment, Brazilian suppliers have been successful in improving their share of product value by shifting toward the export of processed stone and finished products, rather than just the raw material. So although Brazil did export 13 percent more blocks and rough granite slabs in 2004 than in 2003, the value of processed granite slabs exported increased by 54 percent.”

                    • I’d like to see some numbers on this practice, because I have never seen trucks with squared-off logs going down the road, anywhere. Yes, there used to be Asian cull log buyers but, that was in the 90’s. Also, high value hardwood logs often go to Europe unprocessed, due to a waiver. A waiver was once also issued for the LA Basin area, due to a lack of mills. Yes, there is but one mill left in all of southern California, serving six National Forests, and barely staying solvent.

          • Matthew,

            I’m not sure who this “timber industry” is whereof you speak. It would be helpful to be more specific.

            So I don’t know that, say, Pyramid Lumber has a big budget for anything in the public relations world. In fact, I would worry more about them paying a living wage and having good health benefits for their workers and contributing to charities in their town. That’s what I expect from them; not being a PR firm for “appropriate” consumption.

            Now let’s talk industry associations. So AF&PA is often decried for starting SFI, but you could argue that keeping forest practices at a high standard internationally is a way of internalizing environmental costs.

            But I don’t know why they are more responsible than any other industry for promoting less consumption of their products.

            Dairy- does not promote “drink less milk”
            Electronic manufacturers “you only really need one electronic device”
            Steel- “build fewer buildings with steel”

            About empty buildings:

            1) I don’t know how you would get speculators to not speculate.. if wood were more expensive or “timber industry” told folks not to? They would choose a different building material and not listen to PR from the timber industry.

            2) There are plenty of unoccupied buildings built a hundred years or so ago, in rural areas that seem to be caused by poor economic situations, even in non-forested areas.

            3) When I lived in DC there were plenty of unoccupied buildings even during booms, because people in certain areas had no money to fix them up, and the location was undesirable for others to move in.

            Further, our population is growing; not sure the relative contribution of immigration and other growth, so it does seem like even if everyone were to conserve we would still need more.

          • Matthew, In 2012, the US imported nearly 9.9 billion board feet of softwood lumber, most of which (more than 9.5 BBF) came from Canada (according the the Western Wood Products Association). That accounted for nearly 27% of total US softwood lumber consumption. I have nothing against Canada or its fine lumber, but importing less and producing more domestically would lead to more jobs in the US.

            And, since this is a blog devoted to federal forest management planning, I suggest that some of the imported lumber be replaced with wood harvested from the National Forests. An annual USFS harvest of 4 BBF/year is a reasonable increase from the 2.64 BBF harvested from USFS lands in FY 2012, and is far less than the average of nearly 10.4 billion board feet harvested annually from those lands in the 1980s.

            Like it or not, timber will be harvested to meet demand.

            I’ll leave aside for now a discussion of over-consumption.

            • Like it not Steve, timber is not harvested to meet demand.

              And I’m not real surprised that you would leave aside a discussion about over-consumption and how OC and over-development play into issues of supply and demand.

              • Matthew, if people “over-consume” that is an all society (except those who don’t have the bucks), all sector problem.

                If the nexus that we choose to work on this issue is the relatively tiny “federal forest product/rural community” piece of the puzzle, we are attempting to keep the rich from overconsuming on the backs of poor rural communities..

                Which doesn’t seem either an effective kind of leverage on the problem, nor a just way of going about it. IMHO.

            • It’s hard to see the validity of counting up imports of softwood lumber, particularly as evidence of U.S. domestic demand, without also counting up exports softwood lumber.

              • If we have excess wood on National Forest lands, I don’t see the export of boards being a problem. If the price is right, we SHOULD be exporting boards that aren’t as much in demand here. Utilization of smaller trees that need to be thinned is a big challenge in forestry today. Creating demand for things made of wood (instead of plastics, made in China, from Arab oil) can help us restore our forests.

              • Figures for 2012 from Western Wood Products Association:

                U. S. Softwood Lumber Imports (million board feet): 9,864
                U. S. Softwood Lumber Exports (million board feet): 1,582
                U. S. Softwood Log Imports (million board feet): 133
                U. S. Softwood Log Exports (million board feet): 2,110

                U.S. Softwood Lumber Consumption (million board feet) 36,834


  3. Steve, thanks for posting! I was going to, but got all muddled about which paragraphs to select for quoting..

    I agree that it was in depth and even handed.

    Here’s the end of the piece:

    At another site down the road, Jerry Franklin stands on a stump in a clearing that resembles what the White Castle timber sale might look like if it succeeds. An old clear-cut that was never replanted, it could be seen as a forestry failure. But Franklin calls it an early seral success, boasting a diverse array of flowering shrubs and young Douglas firs.

    “I’m a real advocate for finding integrated approaches that try to do good ecologically as well as for cultural and economic values,” he says. “Any singular dominant objective for the federal forestland is a bloody mistake.”

    But where that balance lies has perhaps never been more uncertain, because dynamic ecosystems we’re just beginning to understand refuse to hold still. Ironically, the need to restore the forest we’ve so drastically altered remains the common ground where loggers and environmentalists can both benefit — if they can agree on the way it should be done.

    Beneath tall trees, Franklin stops short of professing exactly how to balance the many virtues of the Northwest woods that have become his life’s work. “You, collectively — society,” he tells his students, “are the ones who have to make that decision.”

    This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

    Note that to get this kind of story it had to be independently funded… We are, to quote the playwright, “dependent on the kindness of strangers” for good reporting, and must hope that they do not have an agenda.

    Thanks to HCN and their contributors!

  4. Isn’t the USFS mandated by law to manage for species diversity? Doesn’t that include early seral species? Doesn’t that render any talk of “using industrial lands for early seral” moot?

    • In an earlier discussion I pointed out that almost all of the “early seral stage” lands in the Pacific Northwest were not ephemeral forest conditions, but stable and persistent landscape-scale assemblages of oak savannahs, grasslands, camas prairies, brakes, balds, and berry patches. These have largely been replaced with invasive conifers, towns, highways, and agricultural crops during the past 200+ years. They cannot be simulated or replaced with ephemeral conditions on other areas of the landscape, and shouldn’t be presented as such.

      The comments that Franklin makes from a stump in a “naturally regenerated” clearcut clearly demonstrate his limitations in the fields of forest management and reforestation. His field is old-growth ecology and (apparently) politics. Norm is a forest economist and political scientist. Neither has particular expertise in the study of wildfires, either. I think the USFS, FWS, and BLM are doing the American public and professional foresters a great disservice by attempting to adopt the “ecological principles” of these two theorists. Check out how well the spotted owl plan and/or the Clinton Plan have done to better understand my reservations.

      Note: We really don’t have “seral stages” in Oregon, we have “age classes.” Even the Clinton Plan struggled with this fact, resolving it by referring to “seral stages” in the text, and defining them as “age classes” in the glossary.

      • Very interesting, Bob.

        With a life partner who worked at an earlier stage of her career for the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS, if you’re counting) on ecological site descriptions (ESDs), which are the statements of expected climax habitat characteristics that are included in many (most?) of the county soil surveys – I was fascinated some years ago to discover that ESDs are absent from the Soil Survey for Lane County, Oregon.

        Has anyone come across documentary history that might explain why these useful baseline tools for site by site ecological understanding were left out of the soil survey for what is often the largest sawlog-producing county in what is often the largest sawlog-producing state in the US?

    • Natural processes (like fire, wind, ice, insects, floods, etc) already create adequate amounts of early seral on federal lands (in combination with the abundant low quality early seral on non-federal land. Climate change is expected to increase these processes.

      It’s odd that many of the same people who pump the public’s fear of fuel build-up and wildfire, also suggest there is a shortage of early seral habitat. Maybe there is a natural “solution” to the perceived “problem.”

      • Then again, there may be an arsonist solution, or an automobile accident solution, or an insect solution. Luckily, there are probabilities to these things happening, and that should help us decide what future probabilities we want, and which ones we don’t want. I think the public has shown its dislike of bark beetles and wildfires. I’d bet if you polled people, at least 98% would say they don’t like dead, dying and burning forests.

      • Tree, according to professors Franklin and Johnson, among others, there is a deficit of early seral forest on federal lands in western Oregon.

        • “There’s no real reason to log what scant native stands remain in Myrtle Creek’s fragile headwaters, since the surrounding area is crammed with oceans of early seral habitat, including “complex” by default units (unpoisoned). What’s really lacking are stands like the intact unit of mature native forest pictured in the Myrtle Creek pilot.”

  5. I think the author of the piece isn’t as clear as he could be because there might be something or things Jerry is looking for in complex early seral beside “non poisoning”. To assert that if you don’t use herbicides (is that what he means?) therefore the result is “complex” does not necessarily follow.

    Jerry writes prolifically, so I’m sure someone could look through what he has written and find exactly what he means.

    PS when someone says “scant native stands” I tend to wonder about his accuracy, since they are all “native stands” the way we commonly use the expression.

    • That reminds me of a “complex” plantation I worked in. There were some very old clearcuts, which were replanted with just any old ponderosa pine trees. Back then, they didn’t sort and classify by zone or elevation. The result was a plantation with a decided lack of good “leave trees”. Some of the trees didn’t even have a straight minimum ten foot log in them. Now, we don’t even clearcut. Haven’t we come a very long way, folks?

      • Larry, where is it that you don’t clearcut anymore?

        In Oregon, focus of the article here, large clearcuts are still normal practice.

  6. I believe with the words ‘”complex” by default units (unpoisoned)’ units, Roy is concisely referring to clearcut areas which are growing back without suppression of native brush and forbs by herbicide application.

    To a first approximation, that’s what it takes to get early seral habitat in much of the Oregon checkerboard lands, today: Remove a lot of the existing native forest cover, then let things grow back by default, including the stuff that isn’t the target for industrial production.


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