A West Coast Perspective on Forestry

By: Amos P. Eno
Posted on:12/22/2013 Updated:02/09/2016

In the past, I have talked with forester Bob Williams of New Jersey on the issue of sustainable forest management. For today’s blog, I talked with the founder and editor of Evergreen Magazine and the Evergreen Foundation, Jim Petersen for a west coast perspective on forest management.

Some lay people get the impression that forestry consists of lumberjacks going out with chainsaws or large logging machinery to cut down large swaths of forests rather indiscriminately, but that is a misconception.

Petersen explained that; “Non science-based forestry simply isn’t forestry.” Academics, timber companies and the U.S. Forest Service have been researching forestry techniques in this country for a century, and foresters continue to apply the best available research.

However, forest management is still an ongoing experiment and it is important to remember that harvest techniques do not necessarily translate from one region or species of tree to another. For example, the innovative techniques for harvesting hardwoods in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, described in my blog from the first of March – Reforesting the Mississippi Alluvial Valley with GreenTrees – in which they interplanted hardwoods with faster growing, and shade providing cottonwoods would never work in Oregon’s Douglas fir forests because, “Douglas fir doesn’t live in its own shadow,” said Petersen.

Instead, harvesting Douglas fir requires clear cutting and replanting. Oregon has some of the most productive forests in the world, but these harvesting techniques make it unpopular, as clear cuts are unsightly and give the impression of forest decimation.

In fact, the practice’s perceived environmental destruction resulted in a ballot initiative, Measure No. 64, in Oregon’s 1998 general election, which called for the prohibition of clear-cut logging and other forestry practices, and specified strict new timber harvest regulations. It was overwhelmingly voted down, with about 19 percent for the initiative and 81 percent against.

Those who drafted the initiative failed to understand that foresters cannot just “adopt new methods and regulations to meet the new requirements” as directed in the initiative. As Petersen said; “You can’t harvest Douglas fir in the west in the same way you harvest hardwoods in the northeast.”

Additionally, Petersen explained that the bill likely was voted down, “because people in Oregon are pragmatists. They know that the trees will be replanted and grow rapidly.”

In fact, in Washington and Oregon timber harvesters do not have the choice of whether or not to replant clear-cut areas: if foresters don't do so of their own initiative, the state will do it for them and send them the bill.

Furthermore, Petersen reiterated a point Bob Williams and I have made in previous blogs: Forestry can be mutually beneficial. “900 million acres of forests are dead or dying in America…Currently, most forests are too dense to support themselves. Nature is indifferent to human need, but attaining human needs through forestry can also help the health of forests.”

While it may sound contradictory to say that 900 million acres of forests are dying and that forests are too dense in the same breath, the former is often the result of the latter. The two natural forces most responsible for the destruction of America’s forests are wildfires and beetle infestations (mostly pine and bark beetles), both of which can be mitigated through sustainable forestry.

Of course, there are always going to be wildfires. Forest management won’t prevent them from starting, but it can lessen their severity. Simply put, denser forests equate to more fuel for a fire and the more fuel there is the bigger the fire will be.

The same goes for beetle infestations; they will always be a threat to forests, but the damage can be limited through forest management. The surge in beetle infestations in the last decade is largely a result of warming minimum temperatures – by that I mean forests in the southeast and west are no longer experiencing the frigid winter temperatures of around -10 degrees Fahrenheit necessary to kill the beetles. (More on that in last week’s blog.)

“Forests that are too dense to support themselves,” as Petersen said, are forests in which there are too many trees competing for too few resources, namely sunlight, water and nutrients. Weakened trees are more susceptible to beetle infestations than healthy ones, which can, to put it unscientifically, flush out beetles with a surge of sap. Predictably, dense tree stands also facilitate the spread of beetles from one tree to another.

Many private landowners and the timber industry manage their forests well and see less damage from fires and beetles than public lands, both state and federal, which are not well managed, if they are managed at all.

According to Petersen, this is not due to the incompetence of state and federal forest services – they employ many professional foresters. Rather, it all comes down to politics and litigation. As Petersen says; “There are no brownie points for advocating forest management on federal lands.”

Particularly in eastern states where the timber industry does not have the economic impact it does in states like Oregon, politicians have nothing to gain from advocating for forest management on federal lands. What they will receive is the outrage of environmental groups. And when they do decide to harvest timber on public lands, the policies often face costly litigation from said environmental groups.

On the other hand, Native American nations in the west, which do not have the impediments of the Gordian Knot that is American politics and bureaucracy, “do a very good forest management job on a shoestring budget; much better than the Forest Service, which has a budget in the millions.”

Our discussion then took an interesting turn. I mentioned the New Jersey Healthy Forests Act, which called for increased forest management with a clause requiring certification of forest management practices by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a 3rd party forest practices certification organization. (The bill passed in the legislature, but was vetoed by Governor Christie).

This is what Petersen had to say: “I’ll go on record; all federal and state lands should be subject to 3rd party certification. Environmentalists would go nuts because no one would approve of cutting on federal land, but if [tree] mortality exceeds growth you have a problem.”

The full discussion of 3rd party forest certification organizations and their relationships with state and federal forestry departments is too long for this blog, but I will continue it after the holidays in early January.

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re: A West Coast Perspective on Forestry
By: Megan on: 02/09/2016

Thank you for this balanced discussion, Amos. It is so important to bring good science into the decision-making process where emotions run high. Looking forward to hearing more from you.