Timber lessons for Hillary’s Oregon visit

By Sean M. Smith,
Vice President Starfire Lumber Co.

Democrat presidential hopeful and, come very lately, self-anointed champion of rural values Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to spend an unusual amount of time in Oregon in the lead-up to our May primary. For the first time in memory, Oregon is a factor in determining which Democrat candidate ends up in the general election. This has forced Hillary and her staff to pay an unprecedented amount of attention to Oregon and the Northwest. She has challenged Sen. Barack Obama to no less than two debates here, and has specified that these debates should focus on issues important to rural Oregonians.

In anticipation of the campaigning rigors soon to come, Oregon for Hillary has recently published a set of public policy bullet points online dubbed The Oregon Compact (http://www.hillaryclinton.com/hq/oregon/compact) which lists, among other matters thought important to Oregonians, Thinning Choked, Unhealthy, Second-Growth Forests, Protecting Remaining Old Growth Forests and Roadless Areas, and Achieving Wilderness Parity which means vastly increasing wilderness area set-asides as Hillary’s to-do list if elected.

When Hurricane Hillary hits next month, there will be opportunities aplenty to ask the candidate some very relevant questions on forest policy which, by rights, ought to make her squirm. Here are just a few:

1. Okay, thinning is wonderful. Then what? It has become a popular myth that the Forest Wars can be settled once and for all, that sustainable timber industry jobs will abound forever, and that our forests can be rendered as fireproof as asbestos if only we can just thin our way to heaven. This prescription ignores a few inconvenient truths, to wit: (1) There’s only a finite amount of thinning that can be done on public lands before we need to do something else that is if we’re interested in people having jobs in the forest sector over the long-term; (2) Thinning is an often uneconomical method of extracting timber from our forests, and (3) These thinning prescriptions do not in any way address what to do with old growth which, so goes the theory of environmental utopians and other non-adults, is assumed to be eternal once some ideal forest state is reached through management.

Where the rubber meets the road in most proposed legislation to protect old growth,

one notices that the age of the timber to be protected is seldom if ever mentioned. Timber to be protected is designated by diameter. A Douglas Fir that’s 30″ in diameter might be 50 years old, or it might be 300 years old depending on the conditions in which it grows. Preservationists of the type who advise Hillary couldn’t care less how old a tree is. Their ultimate goal is to lock up acreage permanently whether public or private. And the more thinning that’s done, the more forests they’ll be able to lock up as there get to be fewer and fewer of the small-diameter, overstocked stands we keep hearing about. Thinning, then, is a one-time entry designed to create forest stands which can later be locked up as old growth.
Most BLM plantations in all of the Western Oregon districts have, at most, anywhere from 2 to 7 years of thinning opportunities left. We could thin everything there is to thin, and this would come nowhere near solving the long-term need to find a way to fund our rural counties in Oregon or keep people working sustainably in the forest sector. It’s a tiny drop in an enormous bucket.

2. How about just making the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan work, since it’s her husband’s legacy? The Northwest Forest Plan (NFP) was touted as a way for environmentalists and industry to give a little, get a little and get on with life. The NFP was ambitious, covering 24 million acres of federal forest lands in Western Oregon, Western Washington and Northern California. It was intended to combine set-asides of vast tracts of these lands for species and stream protection while guaranteeing timber outputs, from the tracts that would remain open to management, of approximately 1.1 billion board feet annually. This translated to roughly a 78% reduction in timber harvests off federal lands from historic levels. The preservationists would get their Eden, the industry would get a predictable (if staunchly reduced) timber supply, and the Forest Wars would end. The NFP has never come the least bit close to delivering on any of these promises.

The ink on the NFP wasn’t dry before environmentalists fired their first volley of lawsuits to block timber sales using either the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA, which preexisted the NFP), Survey and Manage, a daunting set of management prescriptions within the NFP which, in retrospect, seem to have been a Trojan horse planted to ensure it’s failure, or the Aquatic Conservation Strategy, also a creature of the NFP. The BLM and Forest Service quickly had their resources overwhelmed responding to lawsuits and protests, and timber outputs were further reduced, averaging about a fifth of the promised annual volume ever since. Foresters, silviculturists and most other BLM and Forest Service personnel who had some idea how to operate a functional timber sale program either retired or quit in disgust in the ensuing years.

Even if the NFP had delivered the promised volume, 1.1 billion board feet would have resulted in a dramatic downsizing of the timber industry in the Northwest. It would have removed about 40% of the region’s historic timber supply from the market, and resulted in the loss of approximately 84,000 high-wage direct and indirect forest sector jobs. With only about a fifth of the volume the NFP was meant to secure actually flowing to mills, the effect on the industry has been nothing short of devastating. Literally hundreds of mills, logging, trucking, supply, logistics and other businesses tied into the timber industry have gone under, most of them small and family owned. Unemployment, underemployment, and all of their attendant ills have taken hold in once-proud working class towns throughout the rural Northwest. Many of these towns now resemble the rust belt of Appalachia, their once hard-working and independent citizens plagued by drug problems, illegitimacy and poor education. The smattering of industries that have moved in and managed to take hold since this downsizing have generally been service sector employers that have not offered the level of wages and benefits of the good manufacturing jobs the timber industry once supplied. Hillary should take a hard look at these towns. They are the true legacy of the Northwest Forest Plan.

3. If Hillary is really concerned about rural Oregon, how does she figure we’ll ever come up with a way to fund our local governments while simultaneously protecting old growth and designating vast new wilderness areas? Rural Oregon counties have historically relied on sharing revenue from timber harvests with the BLM and Forest Service for a large part of their funding. The rationale for this revenue sharing was that counties which contained vast tracts of nontaxable federal real estate within their boundaries needed some way to make up the shortfall this engendered. When the NFP precipitated a dramatic drop in revenue sharing because of the radical fall-off of harvests from lands under federal management, a series of legislative patches were enacted to partially make up the difference. These were transfers of funds from the federal treasury to the affected counties, and were never intended to be permanent fixes to the problem. Taxpayers who don’t live in Oregon, or who in many instances have never even been to Oregon, grew justifiably resentful of this years-long wealth transfer, as did their elected representatives in Congress. So at long last, appropriations for these transfers dried up in June of last year. Prospects for their reinstatement are slim, and in any case a few years’ worth of extensions is the most that could be hoped for. The federal government has many competing priorities these days. And what self-respecting Oregonian wants our counties to be on permanent welfare anyway? Wouldn’t we be better off putting our citizens to work in the woods?
Unfortunately, Hillary and her fellow travelers can only seem to sing one note these days tie up more resources and make up the difference with transfers to the counties in perpetuity. Not only is this wasteful and misguided, it’s a political non-starter.

4. Just how, exactly, does one protect the remaining old growth? Ancient forests aren’t ancient, and they never stay the same.

We humans have a tendency to think of spans of time as they relate to a human life span. Since a human life span is the only amount of time we’re capable of experiencing, we equate this to being a long period of time. But it’s not. Relative to the age of the earth, and the age of the forests, a human life span is a flash in the pan.

Most Douglas Fir trees older than 400 years, and virtually all Douglas Fir trees older than 600 years, are in the process of dying. These organism have a finite life span. Just like you and I, they are born, they grow old, and they die.

The term of art used in the NFP to describe old growth forests is late successional. The reason this particular terminology is used to describe older forests is that these stands of timber are at the end stages of what is known as the forest succession cycle. This cycle has been well understood by foresters and biologists for decades. Here’s how it works: Douglas Fir, which thrives in direct sunlight but does not do well in shade, takes hold after a stand replacing event (such as a fire, a slide, a clearcut, or some other event that knocks down or removes the existing stand). As the Douglas Fir grows tall, it forms a canopy which shades the ground from direct sunlight. Species such as hemlock and cedar start to pop up under the fir canopy, as these species are much more shade-tolerant than Douglas Fir. These species form what’s known as the understory. As the tall fir reaches maturity, begins to decline and eventually dies, the understory species become the predominant species. That is, until they die from some catastrophic event, opening up the canopy for a new stand of Douglas Fir to begin growing, starting the forest succession cycle anew.

Hence, the oldest forests you’ll find in the Northwest are predominantly composed of cedar and hemlock, not Douglas Fir.

When old growth Douglas Fir dies, it is usually a process that takes several years to happen. Before it begins this slow decline, Douglas Fir timber is at the peak of its market value. With each passing year after the peak of its life cycle, it begins to decline in value. Most commonly, the decline begins when the top of the tree breaks off, usually during a windstorm or sometimes following a lightning strike. Rainwater is then able to pour down the trunk, causing the tree to rot from within. In the industry, we refer to timber that has begun this decline as “overripe,” meaning it should have been harvested sometime before it actually was. We are therefore faced with three choices, only one of which makes any economic sense: (1) We can “protect” old growth until it dies, falls over, rots, and provides us nothing of any commercial value; (2) We can harvest younger, smaller trees on a faster rotation cycle before they have reached the peak of their value, or; (3) We can harvest mature trees in their prime, when they are vastly more valuable than at any other point in their life cycle, and more valuable than most other timber growing anywhere else in the world.
Big Douglas Firs, hemlock and cedar are especially vulnerable to wind storms. They’re taller than everything else around them, particularly on hilltops, and the wind gets a lot of purchase on those wide, tall trunks when it’s blowing hard.

The notion that you can protect an old growth forest by keeping it some idealized, pristine state for all eternity has never borne even a fleeting relationship to reality.

Sean M. Smith, Vice President
Starfire Lumber Co.
Office: 541 942-2465

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