Seeking balance in Oregon's timber country

by Nathan Rice

"Now, that is an old-growth tree!" shouts Jerry Franklin on a September day in the hills above Roseburg, Ore. A mammoth Douglas fir towers 10 stories above, dwarfing everything around it. Sunlight filters down through the thick canopy to a group of about 20 University of Washington students. "You can really see who the veterans in this stand are," Franklin says.

Of anyone on the planet, he should know. A professor of ecosystem analysis at the university since 1986, Franklin, in suspenders and wide-brimmed hat, is a white-mustached veteran himself, having studied the woods for more than five decades. In the 1980s, he was among the first to show that Pacific Northwest old-growth forests were far from the biological deserts many thought them to be -- that, in fact, they are a vital ecosystem teeming with diverse species, including the rare northern spotted owl.

Franklin's research helped spark the bitter timber wars between loggers and environmentalists in the late 1980s, which largely shut down timber sales on some 24 million acres of federal land in the Pacific Northwest in the early '90s. Ultimately, he was among those called in by President Clinton to help draft a plan to end the conflict.

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan set out to protect the spotted owl and hundreds of other species by preserving most of the remaining federal old-growth forest within a network of reserves in Oregon, Washington and Northern California, while leaving nearly a million old-growth acres for logging. Meanwhile, it tried to shift timber-dependent communities into new, more sustainable livelihoods. It would become one of the hallmark environmental policies of the century.

Two decades later, however, both the spotted owl and many timber communities are still in trouble. The bird has edged even closer to extinction, thanks in large part to the unforeseen invasion of its more aggressive cousin, the barred owl, and to big fires that have torn through its habitat. Meanwhile, timber towns are suffering due to several complex factors, including the fact that loggers have been able to harvest only about half of the 1.1 billion board-feet per year expected under the Northwest Forest Plan.

Nowhere is the economic impact to timber country more acute than in western Oregon, where deep budget cuts have forced counties that rely on federal aid to go so far as releasing prisoners from jails. Federal forest managers -- under pressure from their bosses in Washington and state and federal lawmakers -- are trying new ways of logging that would provide more revenue to communities while still protecting the forest. But attempts to increase the cut -- or even bypass the Northwest Forest Plan altogether -- are escalating an all-too-familiar tension over timber country.

In 2010, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar tapped Franklin and his longtime comrade Norm Johnson, an Oregon State University professor of forest policy, to design eight pilot timber-sale projects to demonstrate the administration's "active management" policy, which tries to combine logging with forest restoration. Although the pilot projects seek a middle ground, they've revived old debates at the heart of the timber conflict, including the very meanings of terms like "old growth" and "clear-cut."

In the forest near Roseburg, Franklin shows his students the most controversial project, the White Castle timber sale. Colorful flagging surrounds the old giants that will be protected, but most of the century-old stand, which is spotted owl habitat, will be cleared and sent to local mills. Then the forest will be left to recover on its own. It's far more intensive than the thinning now standard in federal forests, but gentler than the plantation-style clearcuts on state and private lands. Franklin calls this new harvest model "ecological forestry."

Many environmentalists, however, see nothing ecological about the project. To them, it's just another excuse to clear-cut virgin forests to feed outdated lumber mills -- and that, they fear, could set a dangerous precedent.

"It really is challenging the way people think about forests and what is good and bad," Johnson admits. With the first pilot projects already logged, "We're asking them to put aside the way they thought about that before and hear a new story."

Actually, it's more like a new chapter in an old story, about how the emerald belt between the salt shore and the Cascades provided much of the raw material for West Coast settlement and fueled the region's economy for decades to come. Bureau of Land Management lands checkerboard the center of that belt. Here, through a fluke of history, communities founded on timber remained tied to the industry as if by an umbilical cord.

It all started when a railroad land deal went wrong. In 1866, the federal government granted railroads 3.7 million acres in exchange for building a line between Portland and California intended to open the forests to wide-scale logging. After the Oregon & California Railroad Co. violated the terms of the grant, the feds reclaimed 2.6 million acres known as the O&C lands.

In the heart of this country, a settlement called Stumptown sprang up alongside the railroad tracks just inside future Douglas County, about 100 miles south of Eugene. The town lived and breathed timber, like so many others in the area, from Roseburg to Grants Pass to Medford. By 1929, it had been renamed Glendale and had 11 thriving sawmills.

In 1937, Congress designated the O&C lands for "permanent forest production," under what would become the Bureau of Land Management, to support the 18 counties that contained them. Since the U.S. government doesn't pay property tax, Congress promised the O&C counties a whopping 75 percent of federal timber revenues to pay for a variety of services -- triple what other counties would get from Forest Service lands, which were then managed as reserves rather than for timber.

By World War II, most of the old-growth trees on private land had been felled, and so growing demand turned to federal forests. Government-subsidized industrial logging fed the hungry post-war economy, providing lumber for 1950s suburbia. So much cash flowed in from the O&C lands that counties started giving 25 percent back to the BLM to help with management costs. But the big payouts also made some of these counties almost pathologically dependent on federal timber and reluctant to diversify their economies.

As clear-cut logging liquidated old-growth forests over the next decades, concern about forest management grew with the burgeoning environmental movement. In the 1970s, the new National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act set the stage to drastically alter the practices and goals of federal forestry.

Around that time, a young Jerry Franklin was a research forester for the Forest Service in Corvallis. When he started studying old-growth forests, he thought he was compiling the historical record of a soon-to-be-extinct ecosystem: The management paradigm of the day was to log it all.

As environmentalists realized how many species depended on old-growth forests, however, they started working to protect that habitat. Activists camped out in the treetops and blockaded logging roads while their urban counterparts went to court to defend ancient forests. In 1990, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after losing in court, listed the northern spotted owl as threatened. Environmentalists finally had the weapon they needed to stop old-growth logging.

When agencies tried to continue cutting without using new standards to protect the owl, environmentalists won a sweeping legal victory: Federal courts halted all new timber sales in owl habitat until an adequate plan could be put in place. Between 1990 and 1994, timber available for harvest in the Northwest plummeted from 5 billion-board feet to about 1 billion board-feet. The region's timber economy would never be the same.

The cutback in federal harvest hit all of timber country hard but was catastrophic to the O&C counties, particularly those rich in federal land. Unemployment in Douglas County soared from 7 percent in 1990 to 12 percent in 1992. In the same period, over a hundred mills shut down across the Northwest, nearly half of them in Oregon.

In April 1993, Clinton went to Portland to make good on his campaign promise to settle the timber wars. A team of more than 100 experts -- including Franklin and Johnson -- was given 90 days to come up with a solution. Their report became the Northwest Forest Plan, a blueprint for regional ecosystem management unlike anything the world had seen.

Key to the compromise was helping timber towns find new livelihoods. Jobs in the Woods programs put some loggers back to work restoring watersheds. Federal grants helped communities weather the economic storm. The limited harvest under the plan revived some jobs, and unemployment levels returned to around 8 percent in hard-hit counties. To help counties pay for basic services once covered by timber dollars, the feds doled out "spotted owl payments" that would last for six years.

Unfortunately, neither the timber industry nor environmentalists were satisfied. Eight lawsuits -- four from each side -- challenged the Northwest Forest Plan, but none succeeded. The old-growth logging allowed under the plan ensured that battles would continue. "That was a case where our judgment was wrong and society said, 'No,' " Franklin says. After years of ongoing litigation and protest, agencies have generally reverted to thinning over-crowded plantations as a middle ground between loggers and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, industry continued to fight for more logging, claiming the Northwest Forest Plan violated the 1937 O&C Act, which mandated much higher levels of harvest. The Bush BLM settled the case under the Western Oregon Plan Revision -- aka "The Whopper" -- which tried to restore historical logging levels, only to be defeated in court and dismissed under Obama.

Yet saving the forest hasn't saved the owl, thanks in part to the unexpected invasion of an Eastern relative -- the bigger and more aggressive barred owl, which entered the Northwest from the Midwest through Canada. Barred owls compete with their spotted kin for food and territory, sometimes even killing or mating with them to produce hybrid "sparred owls." Spotted owls, whose numbers have fallen an estimated 40 percent in the last 25 years, are now outnumbered 5 to 1 by their cousins in the Oregon Coast Range. This year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to begin shooting barred owls to determine if that will help spotted owls.

Given the bird's steady decline, Fish and Wildlife last year created a new plan nearly doubling its critical habitat and requiring additional review before logging. But habitat on federal land is still being lost -- these days, more to wildfire than the saw. Southern Oregon's 2002 Biscuit Fire ripped through 500,000 acres, causing the greatest loss of owl habitat since the Northwest Forest Plan was put in place. All told, wildfire was responsible for 80 percent of owl habitat lost in the 15 years following the plan.

Two decades ago, it seemed as if the bird's fate was inversely tied to that of the timber towns: If the owls thrived, the communities died, and vice versa. Many a western Oregon greasy spoon once jokingly featured "spotted owl stew" on its menu. Today, those towns still seem headed toward oblivion. Yet so does the owl -- and owl stew, figuratively speaking, is still on the menu.

Marv Eells is one of Glendale's few remaining storeowners, working the counter at his hardware-video-liquor store next door to his deli and used furniture store. Like many O&C residents, he blames the economic malaise on environmental regulations. "Since they went totally medieval on the spotted owl thing," he says, "it's taken a lot of taters off of a lot of tables in this part of the country."

If only it were that simple.

On Jan. 11, 16 inmates walked away from the Lane County jail into Eugene, Ore. By the end of the week, 127 had been set free, and by April, the number spiked to more than 1,200. Most were repeat offenders accused of crimes including burglary, assault and rape. Some were already convicted, their sentences only partly served, but the majority were released before trial because the county, faced with massive budget cuts, couldn't afford to keep them locked up any longer.

Josephine County, two hours south, faced the same problem last May when residents voted down a tax to fund the prison, and 39 inmates were released in Grants Pass. With county sheriffs' departments cutting staff and crime rates rising, locals took the law into their own hands. County residents formed what they call the Citizens Against Crime Patrol, taking to the streets armed with guns and zip ties and flashing lights on their trucks to look for suspicious activity, according to The Associated Press. Officials say it stops just short of vigilante justice.

These are the harsh realities of the current economic collapse in O&C country. Lane, Josephine, Curry, Coos, Douglas -- the counties with the most federal land -- have had it worst, struggling to fund basic services that were once supported by federal timber revenue and now rely on falling federal payments. The kneejerk reaction is often much like Eells': Blame the spotted owls and environmentalists. Yet even before the spotted owl became an issue, the Northwest's timber industry was declining. Loggers had gutted old growth so quickly that harvest levels would inevitably drop. Meanwhile, as logging became more mechanized and mills automated, longtime workers were cast aside.

After the Northwest Forest Plan went into effect, some communities made a genuine effort to create a new economy. Ashland became a center for the arts. A semiconductor factory opened in Eugene, Lane County's economic hub, but shut down in 2008. Other areas were able to take advantage of protected federal land to attract tourists and retirees seeking open space and a better quality of life -- part of the broader shift to a service economy. But communities lacking those resources continue to struggle.

To help them out, in 2000 Congress extended the spotted owl payments with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which increased aid and stretched the safety net for six more years. Since 2006, shrinking extensions of the law have squeaked through Congress. So far, though, the effort to wean these counties off the federal dole -- and away from diminishing timber dollars -- has mostly flopped.

Between 2008 and 2011, falling payments made up almost a quarter of Douglas and neighboring Josephine counties' revenue. Lane County, home of Eugene's University of Oregon, faced a $100 million shortfall last year, thanks in part to the payment drop.

And locals haven't done much to help themselves, either. Like many other Western areas packed with federal land, these counties tend to be fiercely anti-government. Laws passed in the 1990s effectively locked in low property tax rates, making it even harder for counties to pay the bills. Over the last dozen years, Lane County has tried to raise taxes 14 times. Each time, voters said no -- perhaps not surprising, given recent unemployment rates of more than 12 percent. Josephine County has the lowest property tax rate in the state, and still residents won't approve taxes to pay for basic services.

The Secure Rural Schools payments have expired, and the program's renewal seems unlikely. The last checks to counties were withheld by the BLM under the federal budget sequester in February, and now the Forest Service is demanding that counties return the checks it sent out in the new year, infuriating Oregon's congressmen. Other federal safety nets are sure to be cut back under Washington, D.C.'s budget-trimming frenzy. Without payments, county budgets will once again be tied directly to federal timber harvest, providing a fraction of the revenue.

To make matters worse, what remained of the timber economy -- fueled mostly by logs from private land -- was battered by the recession. The national housing bust snuffed domestic lumber demand. Unemployment soared to 16 percent in Douglas County following the 2008 crash, far worse than during the timber-cutback years of the early '90s. Swanson Group mills in Glendale, Roseburg and Springfield laid off over 700 workers between 2007 and 2009.

Still, environmental protections have undoubtedly added to the economic hardship. And as the housing market sputters back to life, and demand for timber revives, the pressure to log federal lands will likely revive, too. But getting the cut out may be even harder than before. In March, the American Forest Resource Council and others sued to overturn the new critical habitat plan, saying that even the call for active management, which would allow limited logging, is "a hollow promise."

Franklin says the recent critical habitat protections are another example of the Northwest Forest Plan being hijacked. "I see it as a major change in the social contract that was the Northwest Forest Plan," he says. "Societies need to be as healthy as the forests. If they aren't, you are going to be in trouble."

Today, Glendale is a shadow of its former self. Sprinklers still spray piles of logs -- mostly from private land -- in the September sun at one of two Swanson Group mills. But the mills operate below capacity and employ mostly out-of-towners from larger communities with more amenities on the Interstate 5 corridor. "The downward spiral this community is in is going to be tough to reverse," says Steve Swanson, the fourth-generation owner of the family business.

Empty storefronts line the main street, and most of the shelves at the SuperStore grocery are bare. A bulletin board at the bookstore, which doubles as a coffee shop and lumber outlet, says, "We read to know we're not alone."

"We live in a land of plenty in terms of resources," says Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson. "Yet we're starving to death."

Standing inside the White Castle timber-sale area, Jerry Franklin lays out his latest vision of a forestry that can provide timber for struggling communities while also restoring the forest.

Along with his old-growth research, Franklin pioneered a "new forestry" that revolutionized federal logging practices in the '90s -- setting basic standards like leaving dead snags and legacy trees for habitat after a clearcut.

Franklin's more recent "ecological forestry" goes further. Larger patches of the best habitat -- 20 to 40 percent of the stand -- are left undisturbed while the rest is cleared to let smaller trees and shrubs fill in, creating "early seral" habitat that's high in biodiversity, with leafy plants for deer and elk, and flowers and fruit for birds and butterflies. Franklin is concerned that there's not enough of this habitat in the Northwest because clear-cuts on state and private land are managed more like plantations than forests: Almost everything is mowed down and sprayed with herbicide so that only replanted trees will grow -- an industrial model that shortcuts natural development.

The new method tries to mimic natural disturbances like wildfire and lets the forest recover more naturally. "It's an evolution in what we were thinking about under the Northwest Forest Plan," Franklin says. Back then, the focus was on saving the old growth; now, he says, it's the young forest that needs help, in part because there's been so little traditional logging on federal lands over the last decade.

Under the Northwest Forest Plan, clearcuts -- "regeneration harvests" in forester terms -- left more trees than an industrial cut but still provoked strong protests. In response, the BLM tried to meet timber targets by thinning crowded plantations to restore forests. But thinning provides less wood per acre and less return to agencies and county budgets. And some fear that the BLM will simply run out of forest to thin within the next couple decades. That's why Franklin wants to begin again with higher-volume, regeneration harvests.

"We need a dedicated land base for sustainable wood production on the federal lands, and this is part of it," Franklin says. The White Castle sale would produce 6.4 million board-feet of timber, slightly less than if it were cut under the normal standards of the Northwest Forest Plan, but 20 times more than if it were simply thinned. A recent study by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's office shows that ecological forestry could satisfy the Northwest Forest Plan's target of 203 million board-feet for the O&C lands into the future, while continued thinning would fall short and eventually dry up.

But the White Castle sale has proven a difficult place to test this new vision. While Franklin and Johnson's strategy recommends cutting previously harvested stands, this one has never been logged. Columns of 108-year-old Douglas fir tower above, providing habitat near five spotted owl nests. In a few decades, the stand will begin to develop the complex structure of a true old-growth forest.

After the site was chosen, the Fish and Wildlife Service included all 256 acres as critical owl habitat but said that the logging project could proceed because it wouldn't cause excessive harm. Within 14 days of the sale's approval, environmentalists filed a protest to stop it, describing the "ecological forestry" label as "Orwellian."

"The White Castle project is a cynical attempt to pass off clear-cutting century-old trees as restoration," said Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild in a press release. "In reality, the true focus of this project is providing cheap timber to old-growth dependent logging mills at taxpayer expense."

Environmentalists fear that this project could clear the way for more of this sort of "active management" in old-forest owl habitat. They say mature forests on their way to developing into old growth should not be sacrificed especially when impacts to struggling spotted owls are unclear. In December, the BLM dismissed the protest, but the groups appealed.

"Orwellian doublespeak, my ass," Franklin retorts. He accuses his critics of distorting the terms of the debate. Under more traditional definitions, the project is neither a clear-cut nor is it in old growth, generally said to be at least 180 years old. Yet with all of the ancient stands essentially off the table, the new fight in Westside forests is over the 80- to 160-year-old future old-growth forests. "This is really where the battle is going to be fought out," Franklin says.

Meanwhile, industry groups say the pilots don't provide enough timber to satisfy the O&C lands' promise of logs to support the counties.

"Of all the issues I've worked on, this particular one has angered the widest spectrum of people -- just about everyone," Johnson says. He sees the pilot projects as a policy test for a new management paradigm that challenges the divide between forest reserves and timber harvest areas. That schism, he says, harkens all the way back to the split between John Muir's preservationist ideals and Gifford Pinchot's utilitarian forestry, which laid the foundation for federal land management.

The pilot harvest model demands that foresters abandon plantation forestry but requires environmentalists to accept that some types of logging -- beyond thinning -- can be ecologically beneficial. "We're asking people to look at that and not see forest destruction but see forest renewal -- and that's hard," says Johnson. "This is really fundamentally rethinking our philosophy of how we conserve and manage forests."

More than anything, the pilots demand something as endangered as the owl: New trust between old adversaries. Though the Northwest Forest Plan emphasized the need to adapt its policies for the future, the distrust between industry, agencies and environmentalists over the years has hampered new ideas -- and possible solutions.

There may yet be some middle ground: Another pilot near Medford was seen as a collaborative forestry success and sold last year without protests. Abbie Jossie, district manager for the Roseburg BLM, is encouraged by the collaborative process behind the pilots. "We all want to be out of the litigation bottleneck so that good things can happen on the landscape and economies can be restored," she says. "There's lots of space out there for agreement, I believe."

But last fall, loggers cut down several legacy trees in the Medford-area pilot that should have been preserved, leaving some locals feeling betrayed. The Coos Bay project was also protested for its spotted owl impacts, and plans to cut 110-year-old trees in another ecological forestry project called Rainbow Ridge near Eugene were dropped amid controversy.

Active management is generally more warmly received on the Eastside of the Cascades, where thinning can help fire-starved forests. But a proposal in Washington to erase the Northwest Forest Plan's old-growth reserve boundaries has spurred controversy at the northern end of spotted owl range (see sidebar).

What plays out on the rest of the Oregon pilot projects will sway how the Bureau of Land Management moves forward with its first new plan in almost two decades. But a new approach to logging would only be one small part of a solution to the conundrum of timber, owls and county funding in O&C country.

State and federal lawmakers are now scrambling for a way to help the counties before federal aid disappears (see sidebar). Some call for bypassing the Northwest Forest Plan altogether to increase the cut, while environmentalists demand that counties and private timber companies pay more taxes. One thing seems clear: Logging alone won't save the counties if environmental laws are to be followed. Another tough compromise seems inevitable.

Meanwhile, Oregon congressmen are asking for more federal aid just to keep counties from going under. Facing bankruptcy, some counties are putting new taxes up for a vote in May in the hope that residents will finally approve them.

At another site down the road, Jerry Franklin stands on a stump in a clearing that resembles what the White Castle timber sale might look like if it succeeds. An old clear-cut that was never replanted, it could be seen as a forestry failure. But Franklin calls it an early seral success, boasting a diverse array of flowering shrubs and young Douglas firs.

"I'm a real advocate for finding integrated approaches that try to do good ecologically as well as for cultural and economic values," he says. "Any singular dominant objective for the federal forestland is a bloody mistake."

But where that balance lies has perhaps never been more uncertain, because dynamic ecosystems we're just beginning to understand refuse to hold still. Ironically, the need to restore the forest we've so drastically altered remains the common ground where loggers and environmentalists can both benefit --  if they can agree on the way it should be done.

Beneath tall trees, Franklin stops short of professing exactly how to balance the many virtues of the Northwest woods that have become his life's work. "You, collectively -- society," he tells his students, "are the ones who have to make that decision."

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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