Seeking balance in Oregon's timber country

  • Ecological management in action at one of the BLM pilot projects in the Medford District of Oregon.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • A logged area surrounded by trees, part of the Buck Rising sale and one of the "ecological forestry" pilot projects in the BLM's Roseburg District in Oregon.

    Chandra LeGu photo courtesy Oregon Wild
  • An old-growth Douglas fir in the White Castle pilot project area near Roseburg, Oregon. Legacy trees like this (with the photographer standing for scale) would be retained, but the surrounding trees could be cut, except in retention areas, where larger swaths of trees are preserved.

    Brizz Meddings/Oregon Wild
  • A northern spotted owl in BLM forest in Oregon's Salem District.

    Scott Carpenter
  • Prisoners -- including some charged with violent felonies -- are released from the Lane County Jail in Eugene, Oregon, last year after reduced payments from the federal government led to county budget cuts.

    Brian Davies/Eugene Register-Guard
  • Jerry Franklin leads students through an old cut that was never replanted, showing the diverse "early seral" habitat that's one of the goals of the BLM pilot projects.

    Nathan Rice
  • The patchwork of clear-cuts on private land makes conservation on adjacent BLM parcels even more important in the O&C country, say environmentalists who've challenged recent "ecological" logging that includes partial clear-cuts.

    Nathan Rice
  • Norm Johnson, left, and Jerry Franklin explain ecological forestry at a sale called Steam Donkey in the Bureau of Land Management's Eugene District.


"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."

Tom Ponte
Tom Ponte says:
Apr 30, 2013 08:49 PM

After reading Nathan Rice's article on the "New Forest Paradigm" I have a number of questions and comments. First from the title of the article you would think that it is about forest management for the whole state but it really focuses on BLM timberland as if that is what most of the timberland in Oregon is. As far as I know the Forest Service manages more forest land than the BLM does and they are also bound by the Northwest Forest Plan. It is curious to me that one of the rationales for the truly Orwellian sounding term for clear cutting as “regenerative harvesting” is that it in the case of the BLM that they will run out of timber in short order if only allowed to derive timber from thinning projects. I seem to recall reading in a not so old article in HCN that the forest service had nowhere near the funds to clean up all the timberland in dire need of thinning to reduce fire potential in overcrowded second growth forests. Maybe the BLM has less to thin because either it is old growth or it has all been recently mowed down?
I am also curious why selective logging is not mentioned as an option. Where I live in Central Oregon there is lots of forest land that is pretty easily accessible. I do a lot of mountain biking and can tell you first hand that there is a lot of second growth timber around here (Ponderosa here in Central Oregon) that is 12” to 18” DBH and growing fast. After they thinned it then they could go in there and start selectively logging it with an eye toward a sustainable cut. That might be more labor intensive but wouldn’t that be a good thing if this is all about jobs? A lot of western Oregon forest land is very steep and may not lend itself to selective cutting or even thinning for that matter but there has got to be some land that does. I would like to hear why Norm Johnson or Jerry Franklin think selective logging is not feasible option both environmentally and economically.
While we are on that topic I did not hear one mention about the possibility that the logging of the older stands would end up as raw logs being exported by us as our new status supplying raw materials to Asia as a colony. It is all about jobs for rural Oregonians but do we even need the lumber with the depressed status of the building industry in the US? What do the supply and demand numbers look like on that?
One other thing that got no mention at all was the effect of deforestation on global warming. All I have to say is we are being extremely hypocritical if we point out loudly that other parts of the world are cutting down their forests and we don’t even talk about it at all after we cut down practically every old growth tree on the continent and are proposing to cut what is left. After all how can we police the world if we don’t have adequate jobs and housing growth?

Nathan Rice
Nathan Rice says:
May 03, 2013 11:04 AM
Thanks for your comments and questions, Tom. The situation on BLM O&C land is indeed very different from Forest Service land given the O&C counties unique financial relationship with those lands. While this story focused on Franklin and Johnson’s “regeneration harvest” model in the moist, Westside BLM forests that provide most of the timber volume, their model for the dry forests are focused on thinning dense stands (you can find more info here: A thorough review of the complexities of the timber market was beyond the scope of this story. Exports to Asia have indeed played a big role in the broader market in recent years but logs from federal land are banned from export in an effort to keep them in the local supply, so logs from the pilot projects would not be exported abroad.
Blake Boles
Blake Boles says:
May 04, 2013 07:50 PM
In my print copy of HCN, this article ends abruptly on page 15 at the following sentence:

Within 14 days of the sale's approval, environmentalists filed a protest to stop it, describing the "ecological forestry" label as "Orwellian."

Lynn Lipscomb
Lynn Lipscomb says:
May 05, 2013 07:20 PM
Blake, the article continues on page 17 (page 16 is a separate sidebar that is fully contained on that page).
Laurie and Tom Ponte
Laurie and Tom Ponte says:
May 20, 2013 12:45 PM
I could have sworn there was an article in HCN about how a west side forest in northern California was being managed successfully using selective logging. The timber companies have to be getting pretty excited about "regenerative harvesting" where you basically clear cut and leave it except for small patches here and there. Those small patches i bet will be the ones hard to log on step slopes or rocky terrain. It sounds a little to close to the old days of rip and run. The Forest Service acquired a lot of land that way that was private but the logging companies abandon it after "harvesting" it - being good stewards of the land that they were. Will the public pick up the tab on these regenerative harvests when they need thinning or will that not be necessary because they will regrow from clear cuts into healthy fire adapted forests just like the originals with little or no management?
In terms of an economic study as to how bad the need for timber is in the US to justify cutting senior forests all you would have to do is call a few lumber yards and ask them where their lumber is coming from. Also you could track the price of lumber in terms of supply and demand.
Emily Guerin
Emily Guerin says:
May 20, 2013 01:51 PM
Laurie/Tom, are you thinking of this 1996 article? "Everyone helps a California forest - except the Forest Service" Or perhaps this 2007 one, "Cutting trees to save the forest: Leveraged buyouts are the newest tool in forest restoration."

--Emily Guerin, Assistant Online Editor
Mary Grace
Mary Grace says:
Jun 13, 2013 04:42 PM
That was an astute observation about the "timber shortage" being a lie. The Oregon 2013-2015 Tax Expenditure report reveals the truthe. The report states that as of 2011 the Oregon timber industry held timber sale contracts that totaled more than 270 million board feet on Oregon state lands and over 600 million board feet on Oregon federal lands. Add the hundreds of millions of board feet taken off Oregon’s private industrial forests and exported as raw logs from Coos Bay and Longview every year and
the alleged “timber shortage” is a complete fabrication.