Reformation in the Vatican of sawlog forestry: History takes Oregon State for a ride
by Kathie DurbinCORVALLIS, Ore. - In the early 1970s, the Northwest was hemorrhaging old-growth forest, the ink on the Endangered Species Act was barely dry and the fledgling environmental movement was still finding its feet.
The curriculum at Oregon State University's College of Forestry, also known as "The Vatican of sawlog forestry," mirrored the times.
"It was all one big indoctrination course," remembers Randal O'Toole, an economist and environmentalist who graduated from OSU's forestry school in 1974.
"You were surrounded by foresters all the time," says O'Toole. "You hardly ever got to go outside the school, and most programs required you to do summer work for a forestry institute."
Gifford Pinchot - the Forest Service chief under Teddy Roosevelt who had a utilitarian view of forests as sources of lumber for a young nation - was the only historic figure forestry students studied, recalls 1979 OSU forestry graduate Andy Stahl.
"You should have had to read Aldo Leopold," says Stahl, who now heads the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "You should have to read Thoreau and Muir ... I took one course in hydrology. There was no requirement that foresters know anything about wildlife habitat."
But things change, even in the Vatican. The listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990 ushered in a new age for forestry in the Northwest. And Oregon State, whose faculty forms the nucleus of a community of nearly 500 forest scientists, has become entwined with new forest policy. Its faculty has supported and sometimes designed much of the overcutting and clearcutting of the past, but the college more recently has become home to some of the nation's foremost educators in forest restoration and ecosystem management.
"Ecological issues facing the Northwest are really centered here," says forest sciences professor Steve Radosevich. "We have the highest per capita number of ecologists in the nation. Plus we're surrounded by forest."
Jerry Franklin, a forest ecologist who worked at Oregon State before moving to the University of Washington in 1986, thinks much of the credit belongs with forestry dean George Brown and several key faculty members. "They've been leaders, healers in integrating traditional and environmental forestry," he says.
In April, the College of Forestry received a four-year, $325,000 MacArthur Foundation grant to develop a first-of-its-kind sustainable forestry curriculum.
The program, to be offered jointly by the College of Forestry and the College of Arts and Sciences, will offer classes and sponsor seminars on ways to reconcile society's conflicting desires for intact forests and two-by-fours. Its students will study wilderness recreation, medicinal plants and fish and wildlife, as well as wood products.
Forestry can't be only timber production anymore, says Radosevich, who will direct the program. "One of our goals is to bring new information into our campus, into our college, and create a kind of anxiety." He hopes that tension between new and old ideas of forestry will breed creativity - what universities ought to be about.
There seems little doubt that creative tension is needed in a forestry curriculum that remains one of the narrowest and most specialized on campus. That's partly an artifact of academic turf-building. The Department of Fisheries and Wildlife is housed in the College of Agriculture, and most courses in fisheries and wildlife aren't designed to make the links between forest practices and the habitat requirements of forest species - links that today's foresters must understand.
But Radosevich's program isn't the only innovation on campus. Students majoring in forest science now explore forest ecosystems, not just the science of making trees grow faster. Engineering students learn how to remove fish-killing culverts as well as how to build logging roads.
An experimental course initiated last year by Professor Robert Beschta asks students to draw conclusions about the health of local watersheds using incomplete data. That is what scientists in the "real world" must work with, he tells them.
Likewise, Logan Norris' course in forest genetics has changed dramatically. "If you had sat in on that class five or 10 years ago, it would have been very much a tree-improvement class: How do you select superior trees, how do you breed them to grow fast?" he says. Now Norris teaches animal, fish and plant genetics.
Norris' four-year-old course in "integrated forest protection" also reflects the changing times. "If we had taught it 10 years ago it would have focused on pest control, herbicides, insecticide," he says. "The course today stresses that the organisms we call pests are an integral part of the forest."
Enrollment is also shifting. This fall, 28 percent of the college's 522 graduate and undergraduate students are women, up from 18 percent 20 years ago. Nearly all of the school's 175 graduate students are from out of state. More and more graduate students have bachelor's degrees from other disciplines - environmental science, biology, botany, even philosophy.
Eric Schroff worked for a private forestry consultant in British Columbia before enrolling at Oregon State because it's a leader, he says.
"What happens in Oregon may be reflected in B.C. four years later." He finds the Oregon State program progressive: "In all the courses I've taken, I can't think of a single one that just focused on timber harvesting."
The change is even reflected in the logging industry: In 1993, when the Oregon Forest Industries Council agreed to up the support it gives the school, it insisted that the increase be used to support research on how logging affects fish and wildlife habitat.
Industry called the shots
That's not the way things used to be. In 1976, three Oregon State forestry professors wrote a landmark report that predicted a gap in timber supplies for Northwest mills once private forest holdings were logged off - unless Congress increased harvest levels on the national forests to make up the difference. Congress followed the report's advice, leading to an era of overcutting that crashed in 1990 with the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species.
Similarly, a computer program designed at the university led Forest Service planners to be wildly optimistic about timber yields, contributing to the overcutting of national forests throughout the 1980s, especially in the Pacific Northwest.
But the university's most visible legacy was its promotion of clearcutting old-growth Douglas fir forests - a method known for its efficiency and its effectiveness at providing young seedlings with the sunlight they need to grow quickly. But it also fragmented the region's forest canopy, and critics say it replaced an intricate ecosystem with sterile tree farms.
Oregon State's politics were consistent with its research. The school got part of its funding from a timber harvest tax, and historically focused most of its research on projects of direct benefit to timber companies.
"Virtually all the biological research was funded by the timber industry," Oregon State scientist John Beuter says. "A research advisory committee was dominated by industry. They made their preferences known."
How much responsibility does OSU bear for the unsustainable forestry practices of the 1970s and 1980s, and for the turmoil that has divided the urban and rural Pacific Northwest in the 1990s?
"Zip," says economist O'Toole. "I believe the fault does not lie with the school. They were responding to the market. There was no market for environmental forestry."
"All of it," counters Stahl, the activist. "They were taught the Germanic traditions of forestry - commodity-oriented, production-oriented forestry. And they were rewarded for practicing it."
Beuter says the school taught the forest research that was current at the time, and that the thought of the old growth running scarce never entered anyone's mind.
"Maybe what we were doing was wrong, but by God we were doing it good," " he says. "The fact we have 30- to 40-year-old trees to work with is thanks to OSU."
New forestry in an old school
Even as the old growth fell, some Oregon State researchers were working in new directions. One of the key architects of President Clinton's plan for sustaining the region's forests in the wake of the listing of the spotted owl was Jerry Franklin, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist affiliated with Oregon State.
While teaching forestry and botany at Oregon State in the 1970s and "80s, Franklin helped pioneer an approach called "new forestry" that proposed leaving some standing and fallen trees after logging, since this woody debris provides a home for wildlife, adds structure to streams and enriches the soil as it decays.
His ideas were largely ignored by forest managers and many academics until the crisis triggered by the owl's listing. Suddenly, Franklin was a sought-after forestry celebrity.
In a now-legendary episode, Franklin clashed with Bill Atkinson, a member of the OSU forestry old guard, during a tour of an experimental forest. Franklin was demonstrating experimental logging techniques to foresters and to the news media when Atkinson decided he'd heard enough.
"New forestry is being sold to the American people like a bar of soap," he stormed. "People are using new forestry to get at clearcutting. We're getting new forestry by decree, by dogma." Atkinson defended clearcutting and the conversion of old-growth stands to plantations, saying, "These second-growth forests are going to save the industry."
Franklin retorted: "You can argue ecological values aren't important enough to interfere with economic values," but he said that point of view wouldn't carry much weight in the political climate of the post-owl world. "Let's not argue," he told his colleague, "about the train that's coming down the track."
Five years later, Atkinson has mellowed. He says his forest engineering department is changing as logging has become more complicated and restoration becomes a major focus.
"It used to be around here the big thing was production and cost," he says. "Now it's watershed restoration and pulling culverts."
Franklin now teaches at the University of Washington, where many progressive forestry programs have been slashed in recent years. He was removed as director of a canopy research project after residents of Forks, Wash. - many of them loggers - voiced opposition to the project in their backyard. He says he is amazed at how rapidly the Oregon school has evolved in its thinking.
"OSU has done a much better job than we have of managing the paradigm shift."
Clearcutting, head butting
Intellectual shifts come slowly to institutions as large and complex as universities. When Oregon State clearcut part of a forest it owned this summer, some considered it a shocking regression.
The controversy made it clear that the quiet evolution taking place in the classes and research agendas at OSU doesn't have nearly the attention-getting qualities that the abrupt leveling of 62 acres of forest does.
"This touched a nerve," says Reed Behrens, who lives near the university's forest and is executive director of the Oregon Clean Water Coalition. He founded the Soap Creek Watershed Coalition to fight the logging.
"We filled the letters to the editor column for weeks," he says. "A lot of letters said clearcutting is not appropriate anymore. A lot of people on Soap Creek have made their living cutting trees, and even they are saying this is not the way to practice forestry."
David Lysne, director of OSU's research forests, defends the clearcutting. The parcel was donated to the university by a timber heiress, he points out, on condition that it be logged quickly to raise money for a library expansion fund. He also says it served a valid research purpose. "It demonstrates how one could generate a million dollars from the land," and he adds that some trees were left for future demonstrations of small woodlot management.
Critics scoff at that rationale, pointing out that clearcutting the tract was inconsistent with the college's long-range forest plan.
Forestry professor William McComb says the logging may have damaged public trust in the school. "I think the College of Forestry has made some big steps in the right direction, but then these things crop up that just make people scratch their heads and say, "What is going on?" "
Steve Radosevich hopes the college's new program in sustainable forestry will help the school gain public trust. He says, "We don't have to have the conflicts that exist."
Behrens agrees. With Radosevich, Norris and others in the forestry school, he is organizing a community forum to discuss how the college should manage the remaining unlogged portion of its tract. "We are hoping to raise the level of awareness about the need for sustainable forestry, not just give it lip service." n
© High Country News