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By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
The Forest Service must become more innovative in awarding timber and restoration contracts if natural resource-dependent communities in the Blue Mountains are to thrive, an analysis indicates.
The federal agency will need to combine timber sales and restoration contracts effectively to thin overcrowded forestlands and provide community jobs, according to an assessment of public and private forests.
Only five new-style contracts have been awarded recently in the Blue Mountains Demonstration Forest area, and at least one has been delayed because it lies outside the narrow criteria allowed for multi-task contracts.
The assessment, requested by Gov. John Kitzhaber, reports that only 29 percent 1.6 million acres of the 5.5 million acres of national forests in the Blue Mountains can be commercially thinned or logged. The remaining 3.88 million acres 71 percent are in wilderness, roadless or lynx-protected areas or does not have canopied forests.
Fifty-eight percent 943,000 acres of the 1.6 million is overstocked or crowded with trees growing too close together and full of underbrush that burns easily. Of the 58 percent, only about half is suitable for commercial logging, according to the assessment prepared by a team from the Blue Mountains Demonstration Forest. The other 472,000 acres are suitable only for precommercial thinning.
"Nearly one-third (of the 1.6 million acres) has been treated since 1988," said Bob Rainville, coordinator of the Blue Mountain Demonstration Forest.
"Because the same ground has been logged over 30 years, we're looking at remnants or younger trees. It's not virgin forests we're dealing with for the most part."
In June 2001, Kitzhaber requested an assessment of public and private forestlands to provide Eastern Oregon communities with reliable information on timber products that could be available in the future.
Rainville said the governor was looking for information that could lead to ways to establish long-term watershed and forest health and the "continued economic health of local communities."
Rainville put together a team of 12 people from the Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman national forests; the Pacific Northwest Research Station; the Oregon Department of Forestry, and Oregon State University. The public lands assessment was delivered to the governor last week, and the analysis of private lands is expected to be finished in January, Rainville said.
"We didn't know what we would find," Rainville said, "but we wanted to tell our communities what they could expect."
Julia Doermann, the governor's federal coordinator for natural resources, said the assessment provided needed information.
"It answered the initial questions that we asked: What's out there?' It affirmed a sense that I have had as I drive around the Blue Mountains. There really are a lot of dense stands small diameters," she said.
The dense small-diameter trees may not be profitable for logging companies, but if within the same forested area there are trees that could be profitable, a combination contract with the Forest Service might be attractive to loggers. Under several types of contracts, the successful bidder would buy the good timber on the land and receive payment for performing precommercial thinning or other restoration.
"We need to impress on the federal government that we need dollars to invest in those treatments because we won't get commercial value," Doermann said.
Under current rules, only limited combined contracts may be awarded nationally.
The forest assessment concludes that 66 percent of the trees that could be harvested are less than 13 inches in diameter and " thinning on only 39,900 acres had a positive net value based on the economic assumptions used in this analysis."
If the federal government reinvests its timber sale revenues into forest operations under new-style contracts, it could increase the number of acres that could be profitable to 114,900, the analysis states.
A reinvestment strategy to raise the money provided by the Forest Service for combination contracts requires congressional approval.
The study concluded that about 138,000 additional acres could be thinned with an investment of $250 to $500 per acre.
LOGGING BIGGER TREES WILL RAISE YIELD
The study showed that if the current limitation on logging trees larger than 21 inches in diameter were lifted and reinvestment were in place, "the number of acres that could be treated increased to 223,100, yielding 807 MMBF (million board-feet) of sawlogs."
The actual yield probably would be less, Rainville said, because the study does not take into account the importance of leaving large, old or dead trees for wildlife habitat.
Rainville said that the controversy that would follow any increase in diameter size for logging makes that decision improbable.
"Changes in market prices, demand by local industrial users of small wood, availability of funding, or agency policies could make thinning commercially viable on many of these overstocked acres," the assessment reports. "Nevertheless, even when considered under the most favorable of assumptions, most overstocked stands would not be treatable without significant investments."
With Kitzhaber's term drawing to a close, future use of the assessment is a question, but Doermann said conversations with cabinet-level federal officials have produced some preliminary understanding of the importance of the study. "People have read it and know what the next questions are," she said. "I think the Forest Service is open to this being a work in progress."
The study may be read online at www.fs.fed.us/bluemountains