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