Top forester backs ambitious program

By Observer Upload March 22, 2013 12:39 pm

 

Ice forms on logs being conditioned Thursday at Boise Cascade in La Grande. Trucks gathering logs for the Boise  Cascade sawmill roll out of La Grande early on 480-mile round trips to the Mount Hood National Forest, Washington’s Okanogan National Forest and federal woodlands in Idaho. Chris Baxter/The Observer
Ice forms on logs being conditioned Thursday at Boise Cascade in La Grande. Trucks gathering logs for the Boise Cascade sawmill roll out of La Grande early on 480-mile round trips to the Mount Hood National Forest, Washington’s Okanogan National Forest and federal woodlands in Idaho. Chris Baxter/The Observer

 Program would make wood from nearby forests more available for use in sawmills

by Richard Cockle/The Oregonian

Trucks gathering logs for the Boise Cascade sawmill roll out of La Grande at 2 a.m. to begin their daylong, 480-mile round trips to the Mount Hood National Forest, Washington’s Okanogan National Forest and other federal woodlands in Idaho.

“It is crazy to have to go that far for logs, totally,” said Jim Princehouse, 67, of La Grande, who owns a fleet of 11 log trucks. “This is a hard life. It really is.”

A staggering 800 million board feet of wood fiber annually reaches maturity in the nearby Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests. Only 11 percent gets to sawmills, while 400 million board feet succumb to insects, disease, fire and age, said industry spokesman Tom Partin. He likened the mills’ situation to “starving to death when you are standing beside the refrigerator.”

That may soon change.

The top U.S. Forest Service official for Oregon and Washington, Kent Connaughton, has asked his foresters to plot out an ambitious, multiyear program of tree thinning and forest restoration in the Blue Mountains. Dubbed “accelerated restoration,” the goal is to free more timber for mills while stiffening the woodlands’ resistance to tree-killing insects, disease and wildfires.

It’s not clear precisely how much lumber will become available under the plan to reduce fuel loads in forests, and funding is still being worked out. However, mill owners are hopeful, while criticism from conservationists so far is muted.

“It is a pretty high priority for us to get this thing going and be successful at it,” said Bill Aney, U.S. Forest Service restoration coordinator for the Blue Mountains. “We can’t afford to lose the mills. We can’t afford to lose the forests.”

Fire threat

Policies designed to halt clear-cuts and restore habitat and wildlife have severely limited harvests in Eastern Oregon’s national forests for two decades, leaving more fuel for forest fires while costing jobs.

The area encompassed by the Wallowa-Whitman, Umatilla and Malheur national forests has lost 17 mills and more than 1,200 sawmill jobs since 1990, said Lindsay Warness, a Boise Cascade forest policy analyst in La Grande.

Industry officials have long advocated for thinning of federal forests as a way to reduce fuel loads and keep mills running. As evidence that federal priorities are out of whack, Partin, who works for the Eugene-based American Forest Resource Council, noted that the federal government spent $3 billion fighting wildfires last year but only $350 million on forest management.

Leading forestry officials are beginning to agree, driven in part by concerns about climate change.

A recent independent Climate Central study suggested that a summertime temperature increase of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit could trigger up to six times the annual burning that the Blue Mountains has experienced in the past two decades.

“That is the thing that really worries me,” says Umatilla National Forest silvaculturalist Dave Powell of Pendleton. “We may be dealing with fires that we don’t have any historical precedence for.”

Add the tinderbox effect of two decades of forest fuel buildups, and some communities could be extremely vulnerable, Powell said.

About 57 percent of the Umatilla National Forest has “very high” stand densities, up from 46 percent in 2001.

Many of the open, park-like expanses of Ponderosa pine that once characterized the Blue Mountains have disappeared, victims of a century of wildfire suppression and selective logging. According to Oregon State University Extension Agent Paul Oester of La Grande, fire-tolerant Ponderosas have been replaced by dense, unhealthy and explosively flammable stands of grand fir, Douglas fir and other tree species.

In those dense stands, Oester said, wildfires burn fast and hot, and “ladder
fuels” — underbrush, dry grass and low branches — carry flames upward into the forest crowns.

Last best hope

These concerns are what led Connaughton, lead federal forester for the Pacific Northwest, to support a program of accelerated restoration in the Ochoco, Malheur, Umatilla and Wallowa-Whitman forests.

“I’ve heard from collaboratives, scientists and public leaders and believe there is broad public support for actively managing our forests to be more resilient to the uncertainties of climate change, uncharacteristically destructive wildfires and inevitable disease outbreaks,” Connaughton said.

Aney, under Connaughton’s direction, assumed leadership of the initiative last month. He intends to have a planning team in place by June, he said. It will lay out projects in concert with collaborative groups of citizens, government officials, environmentalists and others.

The roughly 50,000 acres thinned or logged annually within the four forests is probably less than 20 per cent of what’s needed, Aney said.

“We need to at least double that” to stabilize forest health within 15 years, he said.

The plan Aney will execute calls for managing the Blues in blocks of several hundred thousand acres, instead of the current 30,000-acre planning units. Logging or thinning is likely on no more than 40 percent of each planning unit, Aney said. Individual projects will have to go through environmental reviews.

Work in the woods is expected to start in summer 2014.

Tom Towslee, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said some provisions of the new restoration process are based on an eastside forest plan floated by Wyden, now the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Forest Service “liked what was in the bill” and integrated it into its plans, said Towslee.

Accelerated restoration is likely to become the model for restoring Oregon’s westside forests and the unhealthy, overstocked eastside woodlands of Washington state, said Aney and Towslee.

Some conservationists support the Forest Service plan, saying forest restoration is impossible without the region’s remaining sawmills, loggers and log truck drivers.

When sawmills close for lack of logs, even temporarily, “you always wonder, are they going to reopen?” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center, which has challenged federal timber sales in the past.

Veronica Warnock, conservation director for the La Grande-based Hells Canyon Preservation Council, was more guarded. She said forest restoration is necessary but should be avoided in places where science doesn’t support it, such as stands of old growth or wildlife
corridors.

The Blue Mountains “have some of the highest plant and animal diversity of any place in the United States,” she said. “It’s a treasure ... something we have to protect and preserve.”

Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, said he wants more details. Stevens said the closer the projects adhere to Wyden’s earlier eastside forest legislation, the happier he will be.

Timber executives are cautiously optimistic.

Bruce Daucsavage, of Prineville, president of Ochoco Lumber Co., said the company has been considering a month-long shutdown this spring for an Ochoco subsidiary that employs 90 workers in John Day. He said the accelerated restoration plan is his company’s last, best hope.

“There is a groundswell here that I have not seen in 25 years,” he said. “I think everybody has come to the conclusion that this is it.”