For the first three of my nearly four decades with Oregon Wild, I never thought I would favor keeping any timber mill running let alone all of those still operating in Eastern Oregon. However, both the facts and the times have changed.
Surprisingly perhaps, Im one of the many conservationists who now want to increase the amount of timber sold from the national forests in Eastern Oregon. Of course, we dont want to log the remaining old trees, or scar the landscape with new logging roads. But we do want to see more ecological restoration-based thinning projects in these dry forests, resulting in a greater volume of small logs coming out of the woods.
When I started my conservation career, logging operations were devouring old-growth trees far faster than eastside forests could grow them, and I fought to stop timber sales that harmed Oregons salmon, wildlife, and clean water. Today, I want the remaining sawmills in Elgin, Gilchrist, John Day, Klamath Falls, Lakeview, Pendleton, and Pilot Rock to remain operating because society needs their help to restore and protect those very same resources.
Past logging, fire exclusion, and livestock grazing have dramatically altered the dry forest landscapes of Eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, most of the old-growth ponderosa pines were cut down long ago, and today it is estimated that only 4 to 8 percent of the original old-growth ponderosa forests remain in Oregon. In their place are often dense stands of smaller trees that are more prone to unnatural fire and less hospitable to wildlife.
In addition, unnaturally high densities of young trees stress our remaining older trees by outcompeting them for moisture and nutrients. Insects or disease are then more likely to prematurely end the life of these unnaturally stressed old-growth ponderosa pine trees centuries before they naturally would transition into snags (which are very important for wildlife!).
Historically, natural fires helped maintain balance in these forests, and now the best way to improve conditions for wildlife is to bring fire back. Before we can do that, we must address the fact that many of our dry forests are unnaturally dense due to decades of poor logging practices and fire suppression. To restore these lands, we need an expanded program of ecological restoration thinning that can make way for the return of more natural conditions including frequent, low intensity fires to the forest. The alternative high severity fires that threaten homes and communities, and the loss of our remaining old growth is unacceptable.
Over the last several years, conservation organizations and Eastern Oregon timber operations have found an unprecedented level of common ground and agreement on forest management. Together with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), we have spent countless hours negotiating a compromise plan for restoring dry forests in Eastern Oregon. That plan has now led to federal legislation the Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act.
The legislation proposed by Sens. Wyden and Merkley gives neither conservationists nor the timber industry everything they want. However, it could give both sides what they need. For conservationists, that means safeguards for older trees, clean water, and wildlife. For the timber industry, the legislation could ensure an increased and more reliable supply of timber for its mills. We look forward to working with the Senators to craft a final bill and pass it through Congress.
For nearly four decades, Oregon Wild has worked to stop bad logging projects that harm old-growth, clean water, and wildlife. Today, the organization is designing restoration-based thinning sales that improve forest health, protect old growth, and provide timber and jobs to rural communities. While we still stand ready to fight bad projects, Oregon Wild would rather work together with the Forest Service, timber industry, and rural communities to restore and protect our spectacular old-growth heritage.
Andy Kerr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior counselor to Oregon Wild and has advocated for old forest protection for nearly 40 years.