A new consensus on public forest management?


Since it was pioneered by the likes of Daniel Kemmis (Community and the Politics of Place, 1990) “collaboration” on western natural resource issues has been a regular feature of western rural life. From the high profile Quincy Library Group to efforts that focus without publicity on a single small watershed or grazing allotment, collaborative approaches have become commonplace if not the default approach to management of western public resources.

Now the Obama Administration is being urged to embrace collaborative approaches to restoring public forests. In an essay for Writers on the Range, Trout Unlimited’s CEO Chris Wood didn’t use the word collaboration; he didn’t have to. Wood’s call for the Obama Administration’s Forest Service to “engage communities in restoration” is understood by most westerners to mean the same thing.

So, will we see another avalanche of collaborative groups springing up in the West after January 20th?  Will the Obama Administration mirror the Clinton Era when Chris Wood was the top aide to Forest Service chief Mike Dombeck and collaboration was the default approach for controversial Forest Service projects? And if the Forest Service does move system-wide to “engage communities in (forest) restoration” will we once again see the sort of high profile conflicts that groups like the Quincy Library Group engendered?

There are some strong indications that the world has changed and that reactions to Obama Administration forest restoration efforts will not be nearly as controversial as has been the case in the past. Here’s what has happened:

There appears to be an emerging scientific consensus that “thinning” second growth, old clearcuts (also known as “plantations”) and other younger forests can be done in a manner that will both reduce fire risk and which accelerates the development of old forest habitat.

While the arguments of Tom Bonnicksen and the timber industry are still considered to be scientifically dubious, more rigorous experiments have convinced even scientists working within the environmental movement that well planned “thinning” can have a positive impact on both fire risk and forest biodiversity.

Progress has also been made toward a political consensus that favors “thinning” younger forests. Oregon representative Peter DeFazio and Oregon senator Ron Wyden are each contemplating legislation that would provide greater protection for Old Growth while accelerating “thinning” of younger forest stands. And while the Wyden approach to date is viewed by environmental groups as problematic, DeFazio’s ideas have received favorable reviews from at least some of those who are most active on public forest issues in the region.

Leading Northwest forest protection groups like Oregon Wild and Conservation Northwest have indicated that they might embrace careful thinning of younger forests in exchange for permanent protection of Old Growth. This change of heart has been spurred on in recent years by collaboration within the environmental community. Lead by American Lands, the National Restoration Collaborative brings together forest activists, scientists and community-based forest groups “ to advance comprehensive forest and watershed restoration that is ecologically sound and also benefits rural communities.”  The Collaborative has developed principles and guidelines for forest restoration.

Meanwhile Oregon Wild (OW) appears to have done an about face on the issue of forest thinning – particularly in “eastside” Ponderosa Pine forests. Long time OW staffer Tim Lillebo was quoted recently on the subject in the Capital Press: “I believe there are hundreds of thousands of acres out there that could use active restoration management.”

At the same time some folks in the timber industry appear ready to go along with protecting Old Growth in exchange for getting to log younger public forests. While big timber continues to  focus on using fear of wildfire to justify logging older forests, smaller operators in isolated valley’s around the West have retooled for smaller diameter logs and appear ready to move beyond the industry’s large tree fixation.

It remains to be seen how the budding political consensus and the emerging scientific consensus will work out on the ground. So far the economic realities of timber management have been largely absent from the discussion. Most of the West’s public forests are remote; logging and production costs in these forests are high and it is unclear whether “thinning” timber sales can compete with cheap imported logs.  Some skeptics like this author have suggested that the timber sale is the wrong tool if the objective is forest restoration. But to date the Forest Service has expressed no interest in decoupling work in the woods from the sale of commercial timber. 

On the science front most studies of how “thinning” has impacted fire intensity have looked at forests that were thinned within five years of when wildfire came through. It remains to be seen whether “thinned” forests will exhibit reduced fire risk in the medium and longer term or until the next “thinning” is economically viable. And forest ecologists are just beginning to examine how extensive “thinning” is likely to impact forest ecosystems at landscape and regional scales.  

Most of those who watch western public forest issues expect big changes from a Forest Service overseen by the Obama Administration. The appointment of the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture to replace Mark Rey will be seen as critical. One thing can be said with assurance however: the scientific and political landscapes have shifted. Consequently, forest debates and conflicts in the Obama era will not be a repeat of the Clinton years.

Collaboration/Felice Pace
John F. Borowski
John F. Borowski
Dec 16, 2008 12:17 PM
Sadly...the fine words of Felice Pace bring me back to the optimism many environmentalists felt with the Clinton election. Remember..on the heels of the Dwyer injuction, optimism and collaboration was flourishing: zero cut, range free in 93 (that is 1993, not 2093), Jim Baca at BLM? Then, having a seat at the table meant "working" with the new administration. Critics? Not welcomed. Complain about "options" concerning the forest: you were a disgruntled and "pie in the sky dreamer."

I say this: present the best possible science with ironclad protections. Reach too far? Economists want trillions for a failing economy based on flawed on growth. They are realists. Ask for large swaths of land protected in the forest, end coal use and address human population: you are a crazed environmentalist.

I once believed in "thinning"... then...there was Option 9, environmenalists going back on their own hard won injunctions in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. I recall salvage riders and "thinning legislation:...all conduits for business as usual, forest liquidation.

As a teacher, long time environmentalist, father of two and perpetual optimist (as long as my team had fighters)...I say to Mr. Pace, your intentions are good, yet, why is it so hard to ask for what is right, science backed, morally framed for survival and possible? Industry want "thinning", I want zero cut. Industry wants to open more land, I say no more extraction off public lands. Industry wants more power...we give them Ken Salazar???

Christmas/Solstice time is a time of miracles. Asking for what is right for survival and in essence, commonsense, is the miracle I pray for...
Lack of expertise and science
Ben Myers
Ben Myers
Dec 17, 2008 11:56 AM
With apologies for posting the same comment on two relevant articles, from my experience I have to agree that current thinning projects are more industry influence than science.

I'm especially concerned that a rush to proactively "clean up" the vast beetle-kill areas in my local northern Colorado forests could result in massive new road infrastructure, the harmful application of unproven science, and precedent for intensive, hands-on "tree farming" that then would become the norm.

I attended a public meeting on a local thinning/burning project where the local FS admitted that, with just a few years of try-try-again experience in that area, they're making it up as they go - on a massive scale.

I can't offer an active solutions to curing our forests' problems, but only hope more of the salaried "experts" admit to same before charging out to undermine the forests of the next century.

The only good thing that like-minded friends can say about the Ken Salazar appointment is that it gets him out of the senate. To me, the appointment indicates only a kinder, gentler "drill baby drill" attitude. But perhaps the new Secretary of Interior will be forced to work within the larger environmental cabinet group being set up.

Dec 18, 2008 12:48 PM
John- Quick Question: Where do you intend we harvest wood? A significant portion of our wood already comes form overseas. Given predicted global population of 10 billion in 2050, demand will skyrocket from 3.5 billion m^3 to 5 billion m^3. (This is assuming a per capita use of 0.6 m^3. A more developed world will use more wood.) Do you suggest we continue importing foreign wood. Or as the alternative, should we expand planted forests at home?
If you're answer is "We should consume less, not harvest more." Then that is unrealistic.

On a side note, I support taxation of imported wood to make domestic wood production, thinning, and fuels reductions more viable. This will support local economies dependent on mills and logging. And this will curb import of foreign wood that continues to be harvested at unsustainable rates using ecologically-detrimental practices.