Forest economics presents challenges

Written by Katy Nesbitt, The Observer March 27, 2013 09:20 am

Subcommittees tackle issues Oregon faces in managing state, federal forests

by KATY NESBITT / The Observer 

WALLOWA — Better managing Oregon’s state and national forests are not only a concern for Gov. John Kitzhaber, but of his Board of Forestry.

This winter, the board split into two subcommittees to address the challenges of forest health and economic concerns on federally managed land. Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources in Enterprise, was appointed to the board of forestry last summer and heads the federal forests subcommittee. Tom Insko of Boise Cascade also serves on the committee along with Cindy Williams, a fisheries biologist from Medford. 

The second subcommittee has a shorter life span and will spend the next few months deciding how best to maximize revenue for state lands that support the Oregon Department of Forestry.

“The federal lands subcommittee is right in line with the governor’s interest and approach on federal lands,” said Dan Postrel, public affairs officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Forest health and economic issues have encouraged the board to raise its voice so that the federal government will look for a new way forward on those lands.”

National forests account for about 60 percent of Oregon’s forestland base. Current challenges on federal lands include deteriorating forest health, high fire danger, and economic hardship in communities dependent on federal timber harvests, which have declined significantly since the late 1980s.

The state started voicing this concern in 2004 when it created the Federal Forestlands Advisory Committee, presently headed by Bret Brownscombe. This committee is a broad-based group appointed by the board to articulate the state’s vision of how federal forestlands should be managed to contribute to the sustainability of Oregon’s overall forestland base.

Christoffersen and Brownscombe meet regularly to see where the two committees overlap and to keep from doing double work.

“In 2009, the vision of the advisory committee was part of Oregon’s push to provide additional money for collaboratives, partnerships, getting National Environmental Policy Act work done, and projects out to contract for the U.S. Forest Service,” said Christoffersen.

Company saved 

Collaborative work, involving agencies, private industry representatives, and environmentalists, have met on the Malheur National Forest for the past seven years. That formative work not only brought divergent stakeholders to the table who work out their issues to come to a consensus, but it helped save Malheur Lumber Co. in John Day from closing down.

“We came up with a schedule to get additional projects done, more acres treated and more log volume to the mill. The state stepped forward to help the Forest Service accomplish that,” said
Christoffersen.

Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center is a member of the Malheur National Forest Collaborative and served as its chair. She said she’s been involved with the forest since 2003. In 2006, a group officially formed with the Forest Service, mill workers, loggers, landowners, business owners, ranchers and environmentalists.

Brown said the collaborative uses science as a guide, but it’s the relationships and the networking that make it work.

“We have had a very transparent process,” said Brown. “The main reason this works is that we’ve taken the time to get to know people, get rid of baggage and make folks comfortable. We make sure we take the time to decide what we want to do and not rush things.”

The Malheur Lumber Co. managed to stay open and gets logs from Idaho and private land, but Brown said that’s not sustainable long term.

“The regional office (U.S. Forest Service) has committed to providing resources necessary and to increase planning in the next year,” Brown said. “The real question is whether we are able to provide enough volume. The Malheur National Forest has seen a third of its budget cut. Even though it’s being called a model, there’s no ample funding. Congress is responsible to appropriate dollars if they want us to take care of our federal assets.”

State support

That’s partly where the state has come in, providing funding to support the collaboratives now springing up all over the state, including the Wallowa-Whitman Collaborative. Christoffersen said $4.5 million is in the governor’s budget to support planning and implementation.

The second subcommittee, which met for the first time March 12, will be shorter-lived and has more immediate needs to tackle — a diminishing reserve of funding for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Tom Imeson of the Port of Portland chairs the Board of Forestry and the Financial Viability subcommittee.

“The one I am chairing is aimed more at state forest lands managed by the Department of Forestry. Those lands are managed for a whole variety of purposes — wildlife, water, recreation — and no money comes from the general fund. It is all from timber sales, which is no longer financially sustainable,” said Imeson.

Years of a struggling timber market forced the department to make deep budget cuts, and the board tasked itself to find ways to increase revenues for state forests. The department isn’t necessarily broke, but its reserve balance is smaller than the board thinks is appropriate.

Subcommittee member Mike Rose of Elkton said he didn’t know what to expect from the first meeting, but said, “I hope we can come to a solution for the continuation of the department.”

Sybil Ackerman, head of Portland’s Lazar Foundation and a subcommittee member said, “It’s a huge challenge, but I’m an optimistic person. I think we can find a solution, but we have to figure it out. It’s about smart planning.”

Imeson said this subcommittee has an immediate goal. “We will provide our report to the board in June. It will likely disappear at that time,” said Imeson.