Photo by Ellen Miller

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The future of the forest can sustain communities and the trees, OSU's College of Forestry dean says

The Oregonian By Eric Mortenson

Hal Salwasser's observations come across like forest clearcuts: Blunt, dramatic and starkly efficient. Just as some people think clearcuts are nothing but ugly, not everyone likes what Salwasser has to say.

No matter. The dean of Oregon State University's College of Forestry holds a Biltmore measuring stick to federal forest policy and calls out his readings:

Not sustainable, he declares. Not sustainable on an environmental, economic or social basis. Federal proposals to thin sections of the vast federal holdings, and produce some logging and mill jobs for Oregon's poor rural communities is a step in the right direction, but too "timid," Salwasser says.

"We can't thin our way to sustainability," he says.

Instead, he says, it's time to reclaim the federal forests as a source of community wealth and health by making more timber available for logging. We can do it, he says, by returning to areas where trees were logged in the 1960s to 1980s, were replanted and have grown to suitable size. That can be done without screwing up the environment, without cutting old growth and without grinding intrusive new roads into roadless areas, he says.

As recession-wracked Oregon searches for firm economic ground, Salwasser has emerged among those saying the state's resource-based jobs and products must be revived. At a Portland City Club forum earlier this month, Salwasser and other panelists said great opportunity lies within the 18 million acres of federal forests in Oregon.

Among the first promising steps is a logging and restoration project on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in southwestern Oregon. Salwasser said the work, projected to provide logs for mills while improving wildlife habitat, is a "good experiment."

The project areas would be thinned but would have a specified percentage of trees standing, retain old growth and be replanted with multiple tree species instead of mono-culture Douglas firs. Forest scientists Norm Johnson from Oregon State and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington designed the project.

The experiment is important because federal forest management is "dysfunctional," Salwasser says. Among other problems, collaboration and innovation among industry, agency and conservation groups can be foiled by narrowly focused opponents who sit out the process but stall it with well-tossed lawsuits, he says.

Pioneering forest projects such as the BLM work should be protected from such tactics, he says.

The alternative is a continued mess, a triple-header of unsustainable problems.

Federal forests have grown so dense from lack of management that they are environmentally unhealthy, and susceptible to catastrophic fire and insect damage, he says.

Secondly, forests are no longer economically sustainable because they don't generate the capital -- money from timber sales -- necessary to pay for the stewardship they require.

Last, they are not socially sustainable because they no longer support the jobs and timber harvest revenue that once nourished Oregon's rural towns, counties and school districts, Salwasser says.

The forests are capable of producing that kind of social wealth again if timber sales get back on track.

"They can," he says. "Far more than they are right now."

Oregon remains among the handful of regions best suited for growing trees for wood products, he says. Oregon still produces a fifth of the nation's softwood lumber, despite the 2009 harvest from federal land being the lowest since the Depression.

In Salwasser's view, Oregon has hundreds of thousands of federal acres that can be part of a sustainable timber supply. Another harvest of replanted trees would avoid cutting old growth, building new logging roads or violating stream setbacks and habitat protection rules added in the intervening years.

Forest productivity and mill efficiency have increased so it takes fewer trees to meet the international demand for wood products, says Salwasser, who has been dean for a decade at OSU.

"That frees up the rest of the forest to do something else," such as provide wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration and water filtration.

That's an altered view. In decades past, forestry students studied how to grow, harvest and transport timber, and how to manufacture it into wood products. Graduating foresters entered the woods with a compass and the trusty Biltmore stick, used to estimate a tree's diameter, height and volume in board feet.

In a legacy link, OSU students still learn to use Biltmore sticks in addition to the GPS and other computer systems used in modern forestry. But their coursework reflects the changed nature of forestry. The college offers programs in forest ecosystems and society; forest engineering, resources and management; and wood science and engineering. The college has close to 1,000 students, with another 400 taking on-line natural resource classes.

"All the stuff we do here," Salwasser says, "is an aspect of sustainability."

-- Eric Mortenson

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