Reconciling Forest Needs in SW Oregon

Managing forest stands to put them on a trajectory that will increase their resiliency to wildfire, insect & disease, and climate change seems to be at the forefront of both the Forest Service’s (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) priorities over the past few years.  This concept is often characterized as “forest restoration” by both agencies.  The importance and validity of this priority is illustrated well in the current state of the federal forests of southwest Oregon.  A century of fire suppression in the region has resulted in a level of fuel accumulation that puts these forests at the risk of wildfires that would burn at unnatural levels of intensity.  The remedy to these issues is simple but often controversial: removing the in-growth; essentially cutting and removing the trees that have grown due to a century of fire suppression.  In fact, a paper titled A new approach to evaluate forest structure restoration needs across Oregon and Washington, USA published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2014 by the Nature Conservancy and others, describes these conditions and remedies for southwest Oregon.  Here, the authors describe much of the lands in southwest Oregon as having “moderate to high active restoration needs”.  The authors of this paper determined that these “forest restoration needs were dominated by the need for thinning” and that “disturbance alone cannot restore forest structure”.

The nice thing about such a remedy is that it addresses multiple resource objectives.  It restores forest stands to a more resilient condition while also providing timber products to the local industry.  Unfortunately, these types of forest treatments are often unimplementable.  The obstacles appear to be the management plans and regulatory guidance that direct the actions of the very agencies (USFS & BLM) that aim to prioritize such treatments.

In a recent environmental assessment published by the Medford BLM district the agency stated:  due to competing management objectives, some stands proposed for treatment (approximately 23% of the proposed treatment acres) would not meet the long-term objectives of shifting the trajectory of stands to more optimal growth and resiliency.  How is it that the objectives of the management plan of an agency whose priority is to increase forest resiliency conflict with actions that would increase forest resiliency?

One of these objectives is the recovery of the northern spotted owl (NSO), which is a species listed as threatened under the endangered species act.  BLM vegetation management projects, and subsequent timber sales, must always consider the effects of said project to the NSO and its habitat.  These effects are often measured by the level of forest canopy retained after any vegetation management is applied due to the NSO’s need for some closed canopy conditions.  However, in southwest Oregon where current closed canopies are unnaturally high due to the aforementioned fire suppression, the presumed habitat needs of the NSO conflict with the treatments necessary to meet the needs of forest resiliency.  The same environmental assessment referenced above goes on to state: retaining canopy cover in select stands would not allow for forest health objectives to be met. 

A rational mind would think that a native species of fauna would thrive in a setting composed of native levels of flora.  In other words, if the “natural” condition of forested stands in southwest Oregon is one of lower forest canopy density, shouldn’t those species of wildlife dependent on them thrive under such conditions?  The answer, according to vegetation management projects like the one referenced above, seems to be no.  Reconciliation of this strange relationship would be a neat trick. -Andy Geissler

You Can’t Thin Forever

Since the inception of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon have limited their timber management paradigm to one of nearly exclusive thinning of young forest stands where post-harvest residual closed forest canopies make regeneration of Douglas-fir impossible.  This is an ecological truth: Douglas-fir seedlings need at least partial, but preferably full sunlight to grow and thrive.  AFRC has often clamored regarding the near-sighted nature of this management regime and questioned its long-term sustainability.  In recent months some federal agencies have come to terms with the same truth that AFRC and most foresters who practice their trade in the Pacific Northwest know well: you can’t thin forever.

The Salem BLM District recently published an environmental assessment that considered just how long they could manage their timber resources with a young stand thinning-only approach.  The results were disturbing but not surprising.  The EA, dated April, 2016 read: At the current rate of harvest it is likely the Salem District will exhaust most commercial thinning options in 40-80-year-old stands in a little over a decade.  In other words, the BLM timber program as we have come to know it, will expire in ten years on the Cascades Resource Area without a major shift in management practices.  And really, this timeline is likely pretty similar on other BLM Resource Areas, give or take five years.

I for one was elated when I read this.  It’s a gloomy outlook, but at least it’s realistic.  It’s akin to the longtime addict finally accepting that they are indeed an addict: Until the BLM overcomes the state of denial and accepts that their past twenty-year thinning-only regime is ultimately unsustainable then the likelihood of altering the trend is grim.  It appears that the Cascades Resource Area is on the path to recovery.  Perhaps an intervention is warranted for other Resource Area’s, or the Forest Service for that matter.  –Andy Geissler            

Is the BLM Over Cutting?

It is often said that the BLM is not managing their lands sustainably and they are “over-cutting”.  Elsewhere in this blog we have explained how one determines the amount of timber that can be sustained over time.  Using those concepts, is the BLM overcutting?  The answer is, it depends.  It depends on if the BLM is managing its land consistent with the assumptions made in doing the sustained yield calculation.

For example, if the sustained yield calculation was based on managing 2 million acres and was one billion board feet per year and for various reasons the BLM felt it could only manage 1.5 million acres and they still were selling one billion board feet then, yes, they would be overcutting IF all 2 million acres were established and maintained under the same assumptions as were made when doing the sustained yield calculation.  If on the other hand, the 1.5 million acres contained a higher volume than the managed stand used in the sustained yield calculation, they would not be overcutting and could maintain a sale level of one billion board feet until that excess inventory was gone.  Are you confused yet?

Let’s use an example.  Using the process described in the previous blog, the BLM calculates that the average acre within the one billion board foot sustained yield calculation was based on growing a 21” tree in 60 years for an average volume per acre of 40,000 bf.  If the 2 million acres within their land base consisted entirely of stands under 60 years old and were being managed in a manner that their volume per acre at 60 years was 40,000 bf, then if they continued to harvest one billion board feet per year when their land base was reduced by 25% then they would be overcutting.  If the land base is reduced by 25%, the sustained yield would go down 25% to 750,000 bf if the potential of all acres is identical.

Now let’s assume that the 1.5 million acres the BLM is left with after removing 25% from the land base contained stands that were older than 60 and contained 80,000 bf/ac.  This is way more than what is expected under the sustained yield scenario.  In this case, every acre cut contains twice the volume of a sustained yield acre.  The BLM would not be overcutting if they maintained a harvest of one billion board feet.  They could actually harvest 1.5 billion BF for 60 years from those 1.5 million acres at which time they would have to reduce their harvest to 750,000 bf which is what the managed stands can sustain over time.

Another instance where they could harvest above their sustained yield level is if they aren’t managing their lands using the land management practices that were assumed to be used when doing the sustained yield calculation.  For instance, they might not plant areas with the same genetic characteristic, might not apply fertilizer, might not control stocking or might not regenerate and plant new trees as assumed in the sustained yield calculation.  Under these conditions, the lands would not be growing as anticipated and they could be over cutting.

The industry is worried that this might be the case as the BLM has not followed the management practices that were assumed when they did their sustained yield calculation 20 years ago.  Since the NWFP was adopted, the BLM has not regenerated and planted new trees as anticipated but rather relied on thinning existing stands to produce their ASQ.  While this has increased the standing inventory beyond what was anticipated, it has created a 20 year age gap that will affect future sustained yield calculations.

The BLM has never “over-cut” their lands as the vast majority of their stands contain way more volume than the sustained yield acre as in the example above.  Claims that they are doing so are merely attempts to discredit the agency and deceive the general public and have no basis in reality. -Ross Mickey