Study paints grim picture of logging's future

Gov. John Kitzhaber surveys a proposed thinning project on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest north of Enterprise with Wallowa Valley District Ranger Meg Mitchell. Kitzhaber's visit prompted the newly released study of the Blue Mountain Demonstration Area, which covers 5 million acres of forest land in Northeast Oregon. Chieftain file photo

Too few large trees grow in multiple-use areas of the region's national forests to pay for most thinning, according to a model for northeastern Oregon fuels reduction eforts released Nov. 14. While the study aims in part to boost the region's struggling forest-products economy, the results paint a grim picture when it comes to making forest restoration affordable.

"This really tells us what we're up against," said Bob Rainville, Blue Mountain Demonstration Area coordinator on the region's three national forests.

From 943,000 acres of multiple-use forestland that are overstocked and need treatment to reduce catstrophic fire risks, less than 40,000 would be able to pay for themselves by providing mill-quality timber for a modest volume of 167 million board feet of sawlogs, the study reveals.

By comparison, there are 5.5 million acres of national forest lands in the Blue Mountains. Most of these public lands, however, have been cordoned off for wilderness areas, wild and scenic areas and other designated-use areas.

The study summary states: "Restoration activities on most of the national forest lands would not provide substantial or sustainable timber products for communities. As a result of congressional designations, forest planning decisions or non forested conditions, 71 percent of the land base is not suitable for harvest of substantial or sustainable quantities of timber.

Most of the suitable land base has experienced timber harvest or non-commercial thinning. Up to 32 percent has been harvested commercially or non-commercially since 1988."

The less than a third of forestland that can be logged for merchantable timber tilts toward a risk of catastrophic fire, the report states.

"Presently over half (58 percent) of the forest stands within the suitable land base are overstocked and vulnerable to risks posed by wildfires, insects and disease," the study summary states. "Due to the small size of trees and low volumes of timber harvested during thinning operations, treatment of most (over 90 percent) of the dense stands would be dependent upon funding."

The funding quandary prompted researchers to consider a pair of policies that limit profitability of national-forest logging. The first is a diameter limitation. This policy prohibits sales officers from targeting trees over 21 inches in diameter for harvest. This interim rule emerged in the early 1990s from the Forest Service's regional office in Portland and was instituted to preserve old-growth characteristics. As an amendment to all forest plans, the rule sought to protect habitat for some wildlife species, but it also threw another hurdle in the path of foresters seeking to make thinning affordable and effective at removing dead or diseased trees.

"What happens when the 21-inch limitation is imposed, you could have trees that are not suitable for that site that are damaged and unhealthy ... the prescription would leave those trees," Rainville explained. The prescription then would target smaller trees that are healthy to meet its objectives, he said.

From an economics standpoint, this limitation hampers the ability of counties to reap revenues from forest management projects, the study reveals. In Grant County, for example, only 11,200 acres of fire-prone forest stand to yield a profit under the 21-inch diameter rule. Without the rule, however, more than double that acreage, 28,700 acres, acquires a positive net value and stands to pay its way with logging and thinning.

Regionally, the ratios are similar. With the 21-inch limitation, only 39,900 acres can pay their own way; without it, 79,100 acres become profitable for thinning.

"There were stands that were borderline economically viable. By removing that 21-inch limitation, they started to become economically viable," Rainville noted.

The second policy that the study considers is the transfer of timber receipts into the U.S. Treasury rather than back to the Forest Service for more comprehensive management. With reinvestment of these dollars (essentially making them a subsidy for more costly thinning), the forests could yield 392 million board feet of timber on 115,000 acres - a gain of 225 mmbf of timber and 75,000 acres. With reinvestment and elimination of the 21-inch rule combined, the forests could yield 807 million board feet of timber on 223,100 acres - a gain of 451 mmbf of timber and 144,000 acres.

Rainville cautioned that the researchers did not weigh habitat consideratins.

"The limitation that we had in our analysis is we could not account for the needs of the wildlife species that need those larger trees," he said.

However, the researchers did bear in mind the dynamics of catastrophic fires.

"When a wildfire begins it will get into the small stuff that's closer to the ground. What that small stuff represents is ladder fuels that can carry fire up into the crowns," Rainville reported. With these considerations in mind, the group's concept of restoration was to reduce the amount of fuel close to the ground to avoid crown fires.

Also, the researchers targeted the social needs of economically distressed communities in northeastern Oregon, Rainville said. "Those communities are really desperate right now looking for opportunities for employment," he noted.

One way to bolster employment is to tell employers in the wood-products industry what materials they can expect from national forests and lure them to the region.

"We really can't attract people who may be willing to make commitments in forest products without knowing what the supply may be," Rainville said.

The study came in response to a June 5, 2001, request from Gov. John Kitzhaber. A team of scientists and managers from the Forest Service, including the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests, and a host of other partners completed their assessment of timber products that could result from thinning of dense stands in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. Other partners included the Pacific Northwest Research Station, the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University. The assessment and maps providing the approximate location of stands in need of treatment are available at www.fs.fed.us/bluemountains/pubs.htm.

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