Our national forests are in trouble. Climate change, population increase, and mismanagement have contributed to unhealthy, fire-susceptible forests. Many forests are overstocked, leading to tree mortality. When trees die or burn, carbon absorption, a main bulwark against global warming, stops. This year, I have read and reread two excellent books addressing forest fires and the general health of our national forests: First Put Out the Fire by Jim Peterson and 193 Million Acres: Toward a Healthier and more Resilient US Forest Service edited by Steve Wilent. As I have pondered the ideas in these books, I have come up with a plan for sustainably managing the national forests on the "wet West side" of Oregon and Washington. My plan would create healthier forests, forests less susceptible to catastrophic fire. The topic is fraught with emotion and mistrust between various stakeholders. At times, I wondered if I really had anything that could move the discussion forward. Then I remembered I was "Allen-trained" at Cave Junction, and no way could I walk away without giving it my best shot.
National forests have been at the center of my professional life. I began my career in 1959 as a junior forester on the South Tongass N.F. in Alaska. Ketchikan Pulp Company had a fifty-year contract with the USFS. The contract included most of Prince of Wales Island, and I was the sale administrator. After five years with the USFS, I went to work for U.S. Plywood cruising timber sales on the Umpqua N.F. I purchased 40-50 million board feet of timber per year to sustain a large plywood plant and sawmill in Roseburg, Oregon. In 1970 I was transferred to Morton, Washington, and purchased sales on the Gifford Pinchot N.F. for a sawmill and veneer plant. In 1978 I joined Conifer Pacific, a small plywood and veneer company. There I continued to buy USFS sales on the Olympic and Willamette National Forests. My experience as a steward of national forests and as a purchaser of timber from the forests gives me a unique view into the current situation.
Many people are opposed to any harvesting on national forests. They often point to the overcutting that occurred in the 1970s and 80s. That overcutting led to a shutdown of logging on forest service land, a shutdown that for the most part is still in place today. One main reason for the excessive harvesting was that the allowable cut quotas were set in Washington, DC, or by the regional forest office, not by local foresters. Central to my plan is the idea that the people who know their forests should be the ones making the decisions. It’s been thirty years since the court order that shut down the national forests. Our forests are unhealthy and burning down. It is time for a reasonable compromise.
Overall Management Plan
My plan pertains to forests west of the Cascades from the Canadian border to Cottage Grove, Oregon. Other knowledgeable foresters and land managers can provide similar plans for other regions and forests. My expertise is limited to the westside. It is important that models be made by knowledgeable people in each region. Diverse collaborative groups should be part of each forest plan. The groups should contain stakeholders from both industry and government. I talked with Mike Warjone, president of Port Blakely Tree Farms, who has been thinking about how to incentivize companies to lengthen the rotation of their harvests, thus increasing carbon absorption. He is proposing a plan that asks companies with sawmills and a forest base to keep their trees on the ground longer. In exchange, those companies’ sawmills can process wood from USFS lands. These sorts of ideas come when people collaborate.
Establish a realistic, honest and sustainable allowable annual cut. A sustainable cut means you do not cut more than you grow.
Cut only 70% of the allowable cut. Reserve a 30% contingency in case of fire or windstorm damage. Never overcut. Review and rebalance the annual cut every ten years.
Harvest trees only on forests growing in Douglas Fir Site Class I, II, and III. Forests growing in Site Class IV and V have greater value for watershed, wildlife and recreation.*
Leave all existing old growth trees (any trees over 200 years of age).
Promptly suppress fires in forest areas included in this management plan.
Maintain an 80-year rotation of second/third growth:
- establish stand, planting mixed species native to the site
- 10-15 years precommercial thin
- 25-30 years first commercial thin
- 50 years second commercial thin
- 80 years final harvest
Do not cut trees on side slopes greater than 60%.
Do not build mid-slope roads or roads on side slopes greater than 40%.
Maintain fish passage on all streams.
Maintain buffers on streams.
Do not do any damage to the soil.
Promptly remove blowdown or trees in insect-infested areas.
Establish a trail system to accommodate both horses and hikers
Maintain CCC trails into the high country.
*Site class refers to the quality of soil. The Washington Department of Resources divides soils into five classifications. Site 1 is the most productive, and a Douglas Fir tree in these soils will grow to a height of 137 feet in 50 years. Site V is the least productive, and a Douglas Fir will only grow to 75 feet in the same amount of time.
This model would decrease fire, return our forests to a vigorous, vibrant state, and provide much-needed funds to our rural areas. People are a vital part of our forests. We must manage our forests with the earth’s people in mind. We cannot just let the forest burn and deprive society of all the values that come from the forest. Good fire is an essential part of forest management. Prescribed burns are good fires. Large, out of control fires are bad fires and need to be avoided where possible.
In 2020 the Beachie Creek Fire, started by a lightning strike in the Opal Creek Wilderness Area was allowed to burn even as local mayors asked the Forest Service to put it out. When an east wind hit, the fire spread so fast, nothing could be done. 197,000 acres, including thousands of acres of private forest land, burned. The correction to the current impasse needs to start in Washington, D.C. Our elected leaders in Congress need to come together and move forward to manage our forests. Something I did not learn in forestry school, but have come to appreciate, is "love of the land." Most USFS people possess this love. We just need to let them do their job.