Today, the Siuslaw is one of only a handful of national forests that is actually exceeding timber-cut goals set under the Northwest Forest Plan, says Mary Zuschlag, a natural resource officer with the forest. The plan had estimated that the Siuslaw could produce 5 million board-feet annually. "We’ve been funded for about 20 million," she says. "We would like to ratchet our program up to 40 or 50 million board-feet per year."
What’s shocking is that environmentalists agree: They are as anxious as anyone to hurry the cut-over forests back to old-growth conditions. "We think the clock is ticking," says Jeremy Hall, a field representative with the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a group known for stopping timber sales, not for supporting them. "Once these trees get older than 50 years old, they are not going to respond as well to thinning.
"There’s literally hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in western Oregon and Washington in the same condition," he adds. What’s more, the Siuslaw has shown that forest restoration can pay: The forest’s timber program has netted a modest profit for taxpayers. Innovative forest managers are using "stewardship contracts" to restore cut-over forests. These contracts essentially pay loggers based on the health of the forest they leave behind, not the logs that are taken out (HCN, 1/17/00: Experiment takes the cut out of logging). The national forest sells the logs, and keeps any proceeds.
"When I first started on the project, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into," says Todd Merritt, a forester with Georgia Pacific who oversaw the Siuslaw’s first stewardship contract. "It took a lot of time. But here was the Forest Service telling me they wanted us to cut a certain amount of timber so they’d have funds to do some other stuff they wanted to do. They’re telling me I have to cut the trees."
That "other stuff" included helping a local partnership called the Siuslaw Watershed Restoration Project mend degraded salmon streams. The agency used a helicopter to drop giant logs into creekbeds that had been stripped to the bedrock by "splash damming," a past practice in which timber companies built dams high in the watershed and then dynamited them, washing logs to mills downstream. The airlifted logs have created spawning beds for salmon, and local coho populations are already rebounding. In August, the restoration project won the $100,000 International Thiess Riverprize, billed as the "Nobel Prize for river restoration."
The communities around the Siuslaw have come to embrace the new direction, says Johnny Sundstrom, whose conservation district and nonprofit Siuslaw Institute have been central to the restoration work: "I have an 85-year-old heavy equipment operator who is just proud as hell that he’s correcting problems he saw as a kid."
Salmon aren’t the only species on the rebound. Marbled murrelet populations have leveled out after a precipitous decline. While spotted owl populations are still falling, biologists blame other factors, such as the invasion of barred owls, which compete for habitat (HCN, 2/16/98: The spotted owl has a new enemy). Zuschlag expects more progress over the coming years as the thinned plantations become more like old-growth forests.
"Life after old-growth harvest is good," she says.
Just north of the Oregon-Washington border, beneath the sky-piercing peaks of Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, another timber machine has done a dramatic about-face, though it’s less likely to boast about it.
In the years following the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, the Gifford Pinchot National Forest was at the heart of the controversy over continued old-growth logging (HCN, 11/23/98: A patchwork peace unravels). The forest put up dozens of old-growth timber sales, and for a few years in the mid-1990s — shielded by the infamous "salvage logging rider," which exempted timber sales from citizen appeals — it placed between 30 million and 60 million board-feet on the auction block per year, about 10 percent of what the forest produced in the 1980s.
But once the salvage rider expired, environmentalists came back swinging, filing 37 appeals on the Gifford Pinchot between 1997 and 2002. For three years, the forest was completely paralyzed. "There were virtually no projects coming off the forest," says Emily Platt, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, the group that led the charge against old-growth cutting. "But we could see that this wasn’t a good long-term solution."
Platt went to the Forest Service with a proposition: Stay out of the old-growth, she told agency officials, and we’ll stay out of the courtroom. "They laughed at me," she says. "They said, ‘We don’t believe that anything we do won’t get litigated.’ "
But the task force made good on its promise, and actively supported what Platt describes as "some beautiful thinning projects." Last year, the forest offered for sale 20 million board-feet of timber. Virtually all of it came from thinning projects, and there was no controversy to speak of. This year, the forest expects to offer 17 million board-feet. It’s a far cry from the 300 million to 600 million board-feet the forest offered almost every year in the 1980s, but it’s a start.
Platt and her colleagues have also begun to work with local residents, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, loggers, even labor unions, in the Gifford Pinchot Collaborative Working Group, which is trying to make the forest work again — for wildlife and for rural communities. Both desperately need it.
Take Packwood, Wash., where the sole timber mill closed in the late 1990s, laying off 300 people. Shortly after the mill closed, the Forest Service closed its local ranger station, slashing another 80 jobs. Young families moved away, leaving a few "stickers" along with a growing population of retirees and summer residents. The town’s doctor left, and the elementary school closed last year, so the remaining schoolkids, from kindergarten on up, wake at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus to a neighboring town.
"Who’s gonna man the volunteer fire department?" asks John Squires, a third-generation Packwood resident who cuts firewood on the national forest and sells it to campers in Mount Rainier National Park. "Who’s gonna do search and rescue, if we’re all 70 years old?"
A self-described "lifer," Squires has been one of the driving forces behind the collaborative working group. Three years ago, he organized the field trip that first brought the group together. "We had three vans. We kept getting out, and the rule was that you couldn’t sit next to the same person twice," he says. "We had grizzled loggers sitting next to environmentalists, and we came to a mutual understanding that we actually have a lot of things in common."