The U.S. Forest Service and the "T" Word

As AFRC’s field forester in western Oregon I am responsible for reviewing vegetation management projects with a timber harvest component across four national forests.  All four of these Forests provide some level of timber products every year as a component of these projects.  I stress the word ‘component’ here as these are integrated projects, meaning that their objectives are numerous and diverse.  A garden-variety project may aim to improve wildlife habitat, expand recreation opportunities, and provide timber products.  A good project strives to strike a balance of these diverse objectives and offer up a sort of symbiotic relationship amongst them.  Naturally, the first step in achieving this symbiosis is to identify and acknowledge the various objectives.  For many years, the Forest Service took this first step in a straightforward and tacit manner: they knew what their objectives were and they listed them in no particular order.  Over the past few years I have noticed a change.  The change is simple: the omission of timber as an explicit objective alongside the other objectives.  Timber products are still being provided on these projects, they’re just not being acknowledged in the blueprints.  It’s almost as though the Forest Service is a bit ashamed of harvesting and selling logs.

Faced with this trending practice of veiling timber harvest from small-scale projects, I decided to turn to the forum where the agency is most visible and accessible at the large-scale: their website.  This is where most people would go if they were interested in what the Forest Service does and what its mission is.  Sure enough, the agency’s mission is identified clearly on the web:  The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  Like most mission statements, this one is a bit abstract.  What are these “needs” that our generation gets from our forests?  Fast-forwarding past my trudge through the agency’s webpage I came to the conclusion that our generation apparently does not need wood products; at least not according to the Forest Service, otherwise I would have been able to locate the word “wood” or “timber” somewhere on their website.  I read about other resources: air, water, soil, recreation, wildlife, etc.  In this regard, the Forest Service’s website mirrors those vegetation management projects that I review in western Oregon.  By that I mean they provide wood products to the American public, they just don’t like to boast about it.

I suppose in an age where it seems that image is everything and substance is an afterthought, the Forest Service’s policy of hiding the fact that they permit the cutting of trees to provide wood products to the American public shouldn’t come as a shock.  Although it does to me.  Why not take pride in the fact that they are providing a renewable resource that every member of the public uses every day?  Why not take pride in the fact that this provision comes via integrated projects that achieve a swath of other resource objectives?  These are loaded questions of course.  I’m not that naïve.  The cutting down of trees, regardless of the reason, makes most people at worst distraught and at best a bit uncomfortable.  This is fine.  What isn’t fine is that the lead government agency tasked with providing the nation with all of its needs from our national forests seems to be tailoring it’s messaging to assuage these sentiments rather than tailoring it to reflect what the nation’s needs actually are.  In other words, their website, and the messaging it contains, seems to be handling the public with kids gloves.  Not only is this approach disingenuous, and a bit insulting to their audience, but it’s also leading down a questionable path.  If the Forest Service treats their timber products resource with such shame, why shouldn’t the rest of the American public? -Andy Geissler


Winter Logging

The months of December, January and February are very important to sawmills trying to get their winter decks of logs in before the rains and wet conditions of spring arrives.  These months of winter logging provide sub-freezing temperatures that allows loggers to operate over frozen ground conditions in the forests and remove the timber with little damage to the soil and to the roads they are driving on.

During these winter months, sawmills must deck up enough logs in their yards to allow them to operate during the months of March, April and part of May when conditions in the forests are wet and the soil and roads are too moist to operate on.  Winter logging can be tough on equipment and tough on the loggers working in the woods, often in sub-zero temperatures.  Equipment can freeze up, more breakdowns occur during this time, and with the deep snow and ice, accidents are more prevalent.

So the next time you see a log truck going down the road with snow on top of the logs, think about the loggers working hard in the woods helping the sawmills get in their winter decks before the spring breakup takes place and all of the loggers and their equipment have to exit our Forests.

Below are some pictures from Vaagen Brothers Lumber log yard, as they are building up their winter decks.  On a recent trip to the Colville and Kettle Falls area, the temperatures were dropping to -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Travis Joseph: I am an environmentalist. I also work for the timber industry.

I am an environmentalist.  I also work for the timber industry.  Some people might see that as a contradiction.  But in the timber industry, that’s the norm.

I grew up in Springfield exploring Oregon’s incredible natural treasures.  I have hiked Oregon’s volcanoes, rafted down our state’s wild and scenic rivers, got lost in the woods, and swam and fished in our ice cold lakes.

I plan on living in Oregon for the rest of my life and hope to share these same, amazing experiences with my kids and grandkids.  My coworkers and colleagues feel the same way.  That’s exactly why we work for the timber industry: to keep Oregon’s forests healthy, the environment clean, and to ensure our rural communities are vibrant and safe.

But we have a lot of work to do if we want to protect Oregon’s special places.  The truth is, our state is facing an environmental crisis.  Climate change, disease and bug infestations, drought, and catastrophic wildfires are threatening Oregon’s public forests and the extraordinary economic and ecological benefits they provide.

The impacts of our forest health crisis are already apparent in California, where more than 65 million trees are dying or dead.  Leaders in California are asking the Federal government for emergency relief to treat and replant its dying forests.  But under current Federal rules and regulations, it would take years and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars before restoration work could even begin.

The more likely scenario will be for millions of California trees to rot, burn, and spew stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – to say nothing of the economic loss and public safety risk.  With the resulting lack of replanting and a changing climate many of these forests will instead become brush fields.

Oregon should take note and then take action.  Now, more than ever, we need a plan to save Oregon’s public forests through proactive management and local and regional partnerships.  Congress has passed new laws, such as the Good Neighbor Authority, that would allow the State of Oregon to work hand-in-hand with the Forest Service to thin hundreds of thousands of acres of unhealthy forests before it’s too late.

Under current policy, Federal agencies are only treating hundreds of acres at a time.  That’s not good enough.  Oregon has 30 million acres of forest land and the Federal government owns more than 60 percent.  In order to avoid California’s fate, land managers must increase both the pace and scale of forest restoration projects.  Additional tools and money are needed from Congress to accelerate planning processes and implementation of work in the woods.

If Oregon takes action now, it can also help avert another crisis: the economic and social collapse of our rural communities.  As the Portland metro-area continues to pull itself out of the Great Recession, rural Oregon is being left behind.

Real unemployment in southern and eastern Oregon communities is still in the double-digits.  The number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches in rural Oregon – a key indicator of poverty – is staggering.  Sadly, more than 63 percent of kids in my hometown school district, Springfield, are eligible for the program.

In places like Josephine County, a county that recently lost its last remaining sawmill, one in four Oregonians lives in poverty and 30 percent rely on food stamps.  To make matters worse, essential county government services like law enforcement, search and rescue, mental health, education, and roads – are being slashed as county revenues from federal timber sales remain at historic low levels.

Oregon’s timber industry is perfectly positioned to help the State of Oregon solve the looming environmental crisis and our state’s rural economic crisis.  Our industry could put thousands of unemployed and under-employed Oregonians back to work thinning our forests, transporting materials to local facilities, manufacturing carbon friendly wood products, and generating renewable energy by using every scrap of wood that comes from our forests.

Exciting new advances in technology, engineering, and architecture put Oregon’s timber industry at the forefront of innovative and game-changing products, such as cross laminated timber.  As Portland continues to grow up and out, Oregon could use its own raw materials, made by local workers, in local mills, to build some of the most sustainable and beautiful buildings, schools, and houses in the United States.

Oregon faces serious ecological and economic challenges.  But these challenges provide very real opportunities to protect our incredible natural treasures for current and future generations, grow our economy, and put rural Oregonians back to work.  Now is the time for a vision and action, or else we may watch our state’s unparalleled natural beauty go up in smoke with the fate of Oregon’s rural communities not far behind.

-Travis Joseph