Register Guard Viewpoint
Stephen P. Mealey*
After reading recent guest opinion pieces (Keene 2/4/14, and Doppelt 2/5/14) citing climate change as a primary reason to curtail management of the O&C forests, I felt compelled as Paul Harvey might have put it: “to tell the rest of the story”. The following is a key message from the forestry chapter of the 2013 draft National Climate Assessment (NCA): “Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of forests to ecosystem change and tree mortality through fire, insect infestations, drought, and disease outbreaks. Western U. S. forests are particularly vulnerable to increased wildfire and insect outbreaks…” In 2012, U. S. Forest Service researchers supporting the NCA concluded: “By the end of the 21st century, forest ecosystems in the U. S. will differ from those of today as a result of changing climate…wildfires, insect infestations, pulses of erosion and flooding and drought-induced tree mortality are all expected to increase during the 21st century.”
Around 48% of the 2.2 million acres of O&C forests are unhealthy and fire-prone, conditions that will only worsen with prolonged climate warming. Nearly 25% are classified as Fire Regime Condition Class 3 (FRCC3) meaning the risk of losing key ecosystem components (i.e., soil, water, wildlife) to uncharacteristic wildfires that are larger and more intense and severe than normal, is high. In addition to climate warming, these conditions reflect the long-term policy of fire exclusion and the dramatic reduction of timber management since 1990. Natural disturbance cycles have been altered, and have not been replaced by managed systems. Most of these “at risk” forests are called “Dry Forests” by Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson and are generally found between the southern end of the Willamette Valley and California on the BLM Roseburg and Medford Districts and the Klamath Falls Resource Area. Forest types include Southwest Oregon mixed conifer, dry ponderosa pine, red fir, dry Douglas fir, and California mixed evergreen habitats.
The 2000 National Fire Plan and the 2012 National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy are federal/state government partnership initiatives to address the problems of the O&C at risk forests and those like them throughout the West. Goals are: restore and maintain landscapes that are resilient to fire related disturbances; provide for fire adapted human communities that can withstand wildfire without loss of life and property; and, make efficient risk-based wildfire management decisions. The most fundamental principle is: Actively manage at risk forests to make them more resilient to disturbance and protect human communities. To restore the FRCC3 O&C forests to resilience in a 20-25 year time period, 15,000-20,000 acres per year need to have tree densities reduced through selective harvest and prescribed fire while maintaining Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife population goals for wildlife.
Management of at risk forests to restore resilience is not a “Trojan Horse” to “get the cut out”, as some claim. Clearly, the absence of active management is at least one of the principal factors resulting in the 2002 Biscuit Fire, Oregon’s largest. There, forest types the same as those at risk on the O&C forests burned in many places with uncharacteristic and harmful effects blowing the entire topsoil horizon out to sea in many places and destroying ESA protected Northern Spotted Owl habitat. The need for active management of the O&C forests is part of a much larger state problem. Many of Oregon’s more than 18 million federal forest acres reflect an unhealthy condition made worse by climate warming where most are considered at risk of uncharacteristic wildfire and nearly 40% (Dry Forests) are considered at high risk. In the past 10 years over 3 million acres in more than 20,000 wildfires have burned affecting 10% of Oregon’s total forest land and 16% of its timber land. These fires have come at significant economic and ecological costs. A hopeful response in Oregon’s Blue Mountains with much FRCC2&3 forests is a Forest Service program dubbed “accelerated restoration” designed to provide more timber for mills while restoring resilience to tree-killing insects, disease and wildfires.
Oregonians should be grateful especially to Congressmen DeFazio, Walden and Schrader, and Senator Wyden for addressing the needs for healthy forests and healthy communities in their respective proposals for management of O&C forests. While their approaches differ in some respects all agree that active forest management to restore forests and associated communities is imperative ecologically and economically. Proposed timber harvest in “Moist Forests” not only benefits local communities economically but can, if well distributed, create high quality early seral habitat beneficial to a wide array of wildlife species including elk and deer which are in steep decline.
Finally, in September 2013, the Pinchot Institute in Pennsylvania convened some of the nation’s leading thinkers in conservation science and practice to re-examine the vision, goals, and methods for conserving and sustainably managing forests in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch where humans are massively changing Earth’s life support systems. More active management of forest ecosystems was seen as important to conserving biodiversity and maintaining other essential values of forest ecosystems such as water resource protection. Unmanaged “static” conservation reserves in rapidly changing “dynamic” ecosystems were not seen as useful options. That’s the rest of the story.
*Steve Mealey lives near Leaburg. He is Vice President for Conservation, Boone and Crockett Club, the oldest American hunter/conservationist organization in America. The Club was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887.