Not about old-growth

By Norm Cimon March 10, 2010 03:02 pm

It isn’t about environmentalists. It is about ecology but only as it serves economics. Both terms have the same root, the Greek word oikos, which means home. Before we can manage our home (economics) we need to understand it (ecology).

Forest stands cascade off of Mount Emily, fingering down through shaded draws and eventually merging to form the forests that cover the benches above the Grande Ronde Valley. Those benches were originally covered with old-growth Ponderosa pine. The Union County Museum hosts photos that show log decks in Imbler from the turn of the last century. Those decks are filled with giant Ponderosa logs that were most likely taken from the immediate vicinity of Mount Emily.

Well into the 1980s, in a misguided attempt to increase yield driven more by bean-counting than forestry, millions of acres of pine stands on both private and public lands were converted to true fir and Douglas fir. That “conversion’’ often amounted to nothing more than cutting most of the pine and letting the stand grow back in those firs. They come in naturally on disturbed ground, so it’s easy and cheap to sit back and let it happen.

There were exceptions. A handful of foresters, and not just on public lands but including a few at Boise Cascade, insisted that the stands they managed should be in pine. They had to withstand pressure from inside their organizations to do this. The thinning and periodic burning needed to keep the forest open — Ponderosa is largely immune to light burning while the firs are not — cost money. They knew what house they lived in and stuck to their guns.

The results are in. Over the last 40 years, overgrown stands of fir have choked both domains. The pumping action of hundreds of trees per acre created nutrient shortfalls and dried the soils. Tussock moth made short work of stands growing where they didn’t belong. Spruce budworm followed up, suppressing growth across other stands, but thinning out the understory and reducing the threat of fire in the long term. The reduced growth meant, however, that many of the stands hosting pine surpassed the volume increment on fir stands. These results have vindicated foresters like Boise Cascade’s Bob Weinberger and taught us a valuable economic lesson we need to heed.

As currently marked, the proposed cuts on the MERA forests are a mistake. If that many trees are removed the stand will be set back 40 to 50 years in its development cycle. Other possible effects include soil erosion and the potential for the springs that flow down the mountain front to dry up earlier in the year. What is guaranteed is that the stands will be overgrown with fir saplings. Those shade-tolerant species will crowd out the pine seedlings for decades unless they are regularly thinned. Union County doesn’t have the money to manage these stands for the next 20 years let alone the next 100.

The county asked for a better plan and they got it. Karin Antell is a respected scientist who’s helped revitalize many ecosystems in the Grande Ronde Valley. She in turn mobilized the best stand exam crew in Northeast Oregon. Their 50+ years of experience inventorying hundreds of forest stands led to a detailed plan, including maps. That plan has long-term economic benefits based on ecological reality.

The stand would continue to be regularly thinned but allowed to grow out, with selective cuts producing a stream of income into the future. The county rejected that plan. What is more astounding is that the county rejected free money. They asked for the good-faith promise of a down-payment and they got that as well. Both would help pave the way for a real community-forest effort, one that could probably draw support from funding organizations. That’s something that’s highly unlikely under the original proposal.

The issue has never been about old-growth. It’s about sustainability and affordability. The county cast aside the very plan it asked for, a slap in the face at those who spent enormous personal time and effort to produce it. While it’s in the economic interest of Forest Capital to maximize their assets — something they told the Oregonian they planned to do across their Northwest holdings — the county has the same obligation. Instead they’ve chosen to develop one more non-performing asset when they have a chance to do something different this time.

Union County officials need to pay more than lip-service about taking advantage of abundant local resources, and I mean the people who live here. They can’t do that until they shed their social biases about who knows what. It leads to bad ecology and lousy economics.

Like many of you, I have favorite quotes. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’’ is one of them. Here’s another, “Greed is short-term economic self-interest. Morality is long-term economic self-interest.’’

Mount Emily is the primary symbol people associate with the town of La Grande, the memory they take with them. Mistakes were made in the past. This time, we can and should do what’s moral and in our long-term economic self-interest.

Norm Cimon is a La Grande resident.