Forests should be managed for the common good

Forest management debates in Southern Oregon have been focused solely on federal forests and narrowly framed between two special interest groups: environmentalists and the timber industry. The current Bureau of Land Management timber sale controversy exemplifies these myopic management disputes.

BLM manages a unique federal forest component called the "checkerboard," where every other square mile is privately owned. Google's satellite illuminates this checkerboard of clearcut industry squares and cooler, greener blocks of federal forest. Two BLM timber sales being litigated or protested by environmental and industry groups, Cottonwood and Vine Maple, lie in this fragmented landscape.

As a forester, I ground-checked these sales. Although in differing sites and forest types, both sales, similar in ages and condition, have been previously logged. Both sales are within a resource designation former President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan calls the "matrix."

Environmental groups who agreed with Clinton's unscientific division of our remnant native forests between matrix lands to be logged and reserves to be protected are suing BLM over the Cottonwood Sale. Ironically, the same environmental groups are also collaborating with industry to log Vine Maple, a sale within a larger operation delivering seven times Cottonwood's timber volume. Meanwhile, an industry group is protesting Vine Maple because it doesn't produce enough timber!

This sort of wheeling and dealing is no way to manage our forests. The players' seemingly conflicted moves are, however, more understandable if one follows the money.

Environmental groups who agreed to Clinton's Forest Plan have continued to control and use federal logging to "maintain political access" and raise funding. Collaborative logging projects often receive special funding and environmental attorneys profit from timber sale lawsuit settlements. Waiting until sales are awarded to sue, they hold the BLM between a rock and a hard place since purchasers also have legal claims.

The timber industry's motives are more transparent. They want to buy as much BLM timber in this down market as possible. Purchasers can freely hold sales for years and make windfall profits re-selling or processing our timber when the market bumps up. Exporting their own logs while holding a billion board feet of sold but uncut federal timber, Oregon's insatiable forest industry doesn't need more.

In 2011, 734 million board feet, about 160,000 log truck loads, was harvested from Southern Oregon's private forests — enough logs to feed every mill in the state! Huge volumes were shipped abroad, supporting a few hundred local jobs instead of potentially many thousands. If there was a real domestic log shortage, local mills would certainly protest rampant log exports.

In 2005, before the housing crash, Medford BLM offered 62 million board feet for sale. Industry purchased a third of it for an average of $185 per thousand board feet — less than half what private timber sold for. In 2011, industry purchased all the BLM's offered timber, larger in diameter than 2005's offerings, for only $77 per MBF!

Why is the BLM selling any timber in this abnormally low market? Why aren't the environmental groups protesting this economic loss?

The 1937 O&C Act directing the BLM to sell timber says "Sell so much as can be sold at reasonable prices in a normal market." Selling timber in this historically recessed market shorts the Treasury, the O&C counties and the larger public. The Medford BLM, to their credit, offered a third as much timber in 2011 as they did in 2005.

The O&C Act further directs the BLM to protect watersheds and provide recreational facilities. Instead of logging in a poor market, the BLM should restore damaged watersheds to bolster Southern Oregon's critical water supplies. They should increase recreational facilities to meet growing demands. These activities create more jobs per dollar invested than logging.

The respected scientists behind the Northwest Forest Plan say sustaining endangered species and functional watersheds requires conserving the whole forest, not just the federal component. Environmentalists zealous to save critical species and habitats should quit promoting more federal logging and work to reform Oregon's archaic forest practice rules. Rules that allow nearly half of Oregon's richest forests to be, as Dr. Jerry Franklin says, "terminated." Without private forest reforms, holistic and complex forest conditions that support species such as the spotted owl won't recover or endure.

Managing Southern Oregon's forests in a democratic, economically just and ecologically cohesive manner requires addressing the real needs of the people and the forests. Focusing prudent forest management solely on federal forests and considering only the maneuvering of special interest groups is shortsighted and unfair.

Roy Keene, a timber cruiser and conservationist in Oregon's forests for 40 years, received the Wilderness Society's Environmental Hero award for his leadership in securing Southern Oregon's Rogue Umpqua Divide and Boulder Creek Wildernesses.

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