Collaborating toward forest health, harvest

June 06, 2012 01:06 pm

A loader picks up logs at Boise Cascade’s La Grande sawmill. With mills in La Grande and Elgin and a particleboard board plant in Island City, Boise has a big stake in the collaborative efforts to move thinning and harvest projects forward on the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.
A loader picks up logs at Boise Cascade’s La Grande sawmill. With mills in La Grande and Elgin and a particleboard board plant in Island City, Boise has a big stake in the collaborative efforts to move thinning and harvest projects forward on the Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

A brighter future for Northeast Oregon’s wood products industry is on the horizon if a collaborative effort focused on improving forest health and bolstering the regional economy succeeds. 

Since last year, representatives from county governments, American Indian tribes, the wood products industry, environmental and conservation groups, and other entities have been meeting to work out differences that might otherwise hold up work on timber projects on the Umatilla National Forest. And, a similar group is taking shape to study issues on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

Both collaboratives will study project proposals and make recommendations to the U.S. Forest Service. The result could be healthier tree stands, improved wildlife habitat and a more reliable timber supply for area sawmills, said Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson.

“This is the first time a forest collaborative has been formed in Northeast Oregon,” Davidson said. “There are examples in other places where it has been successful. The goal is ecological resiliency and support for communities.”

Davidson said the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Group started coming together during a tour and open house in the Heppner District of the Umatilla National Forest in July 2011. At that well-attended event, people with interests in federal forest issues visited several sites and talked about ways to break legal and administrative gridlock and move forest restoration projects forward.

Formation of the collaborative was facilitated by Oregon Solutions, a state agency with a mission of helping private, public and non-profit groups come together in the search for answers to community problems. Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office selected the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Group as an Oregon Solutions project, and the job of getting it off the ground went to Program Coordinator Scott Aycock.

“We recognize there are a lot of collaborative groups looking for ways to get more efficient,” Aycock said. “One of the reasons to collaborate is, no one has the resources to go it alone. If you’re going to get any project done, there’s got to be more collaboration.”

The governments of Union, Umatilla, Wallowa, Morrow and Grant counties and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation became members of the Umatilla Forest Collaborative Group, as did conservation organizations including Hells Canyon Preservation Council, Oregon Wild and The Nature Conservancy. Also on board are the American Forest Resource Council, the Association of Oregon Loggers, Boise Cascade and Blue Mountain Forest Products. 

In May, the group formalized itself with a set of operating principles, including a mission and vision statement. The mission, according to the document, is to promote balanced solutions and sustain ecological resiliency and community socioeconomic health in and near the Umatilla National Forest. The vision is for recommendations tendered to the Forest Service that contribute to lasting ecological and economic health in that same geographic area.

Davidson said proposed projects the group is studying on the Umatilla are the 27,000-acre Kahler project in the Heppner District, and the Thomas Creek project in the Walla Walla district. Both are forest restoration projects that call for thinning and harvest, though management challenges are different for each.

The main distinction is that Kahler is considered a warm, dry forest and Thomas Creek a cool, moist forest. 

“The idea is to look at those sites and see if a common ground can be developed to improve the health of the forest and create an economically viable opportunity for communities,” Davidson said.

Brian Kelly of the local conservation group, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, said his organization remains committed to the protection of fish and wildlife habitat, old growth trees and ecosystems surrounding old-growth trees. At the same time, he said he thinks the collaborative can come to some agreement on thinning and harvest.

“We want to protect old-growth trees, and other places that might not be old-growth forests but have old-growth trees in them. We’re saying don’t cut that old-growth tree down. If we can give that tree the best chance of living another 100 years by doing some thinning, we’re open to that discussion,” Kelly said.

Tim Lillebo, a spokesman for Oregon Wild, said he is optimistic the collaborative approach can benefit forest health and community well-being. He said he thinks forest restoration decisions based on sound science could deliver big benefits for conservation groups and the wood products industry alike.

“There’s times when the solution might be to go in and do a prescribed burn, but other times where it might take commercial thinning. There’s going to be a huge result of wood being cut, and that means jobs for communities,” Lillebo said. 

He added that non-timber projects on National Forests could also offer opportunity.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s cutting down trees or straightening out a bend in the stream, it all adds up to economic activity,” he said.

Boise Cascade, with sawmills in La Grande and Elgin and a particleboard plant in Island City, has a strong interest in seeing the collaborative approach work. With harvest activity almost at a standstill on national forests in the region, timber supply is a critical issue for the company. 

Lindsey Warness, Boise’s local forest policy analyst, said much of the supply for the local mills comes from National Forests out of the region these days. That adds up to a big expense, one that could be reduced if sales increased on the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

“We depend on the federal forest for our timber supply so it’s important to put projects together that will benefit our local forests and local economy,” Warness said.

She expressed optimism on the formation of the group.

“I am feeling encouraged. It’s going a lot faster than other collaboratives. I think everyone’s coming to the table with the right motives and mentality,” she said.

The collaborative approach has a good chance of catching on. Thursday, many of the same stakeholders and several others will be attending an initial meeting for a proposed Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Collaborative group.