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.

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