More clearcutting won't save forests

Timber industry proponents are busy politicizing this summer's wildfires to support their argument that the clearcut forestry proposed in the DeFazio/Walden O&C Bill will somehow reduce fire hazard and improve the health of our public forests. At a time when we should be pulling together, such claims are as disheartening as they are dishonest.

While timber supporters have every right to argue that the public forests currently providing wildlife, watersheds and recreation to all Americans should be managed solely for timber production, they cross a line when they claim that consigning 1.6 million acres of public forestlands to rotational clearcutting will result in healthy forests or reduced fire hazard.

The 49,000-acre Douglas Complex Fire is currently the largest of Southern Oregon forest fires. As of Aug. 19, taxpayers have spent over $48 million suppressing the Douglas Complex. The checkerboard lands impacted by this fire are composed largely of private industrial tree plantations and heavily logged BLM lands that barely resemble what most people would consider a "forest." On much of this landscape native trees have been slicked off and replaced with a dense, uniform crop of conifers while competing vegetation, such as hardwood species, are killed off with herbicide application. Logging roads far outnumber the creeks, and soils have been degraded by a combination of timber yarding, log landings and vegetation removal.

The timber industry is hoping to double-down on this forest management paradigm. Under the O&C legislation that they are supporting, 1.6 million acres of public forests would be subjected to the same clearcutting, timber yarding, road construction, herbicide use and plantation forestry that are present in the Douglas Complex. So now is the right time to ask ourselves if this is the future we really want for our public lands.

Has clearcutting made these forests healthier? Has clearcutting made these forests more fire resilient? Will additional clearcutting provide a steady revenue stream to our counties and communities?

A decade ago the Timbered Rock fire burned through a heavily logged watershed with a similar public lands and timber industry land ownership pattern and logging history as exists in the Douglas Complex. Once the smoke cleared at Timbered Rock the BLM concluded that only 10 percent of the old-growth forests within the fire perimeter succumbed to the fire while 100 percent of dense young fiber plantation burned so intensely that all the trees died.

It is widely acknowledged that plantations and logging slash contribute directly to fire severity. In the March 2003 Wildfire Effects Evaluation, Umpqua National Forest researchers found that "plantations had a tendency to increase the rate of fire spread and increased the overall area of stand-replacement fire effects by spreading to neighboring stands," and that "plantation mortality is disproportionately high compared to the total area that plantations occupied within the fire perimeter."

Similarly in 2008, BLM Butte Falls Butte Falls Resource Area timber planners concluded that older native forests were more fire resilient because "the multi-layered, mixed-conifer stands in age classes greater than 120 years with more open stand structure have lower surface fuels and higher canopy heights. These stands would likely have single or group tree torching with low rates of spread and short flame lengths "¦ A fire started within these stands would likely be easily suppressed."

Putting aside the timber industry rhetoric that clearcutting 1.6 million acres of public lands will result in healthy, fire-resilient forests, we are left with a question of economics. Why haven't the millions of acres of clearcuts throughout the state brought prosperity to timber communities and counties?

One reason is that raw log exports from Oregon's 8 million acres of private industrial forestlands are near an all-time high. The timber industry has little incentive to send logs from its private lands to local mills when a better price can be found overseas.

In 2010 approximately 1.1 billion board feet of raw logs were exported from the private timberlands of Oregon and Washington. Ironically, this is about the same amount of timber volume that the Northwest Forest Plan anticipated providing from public lands as a subsidy to private timber mills.

A silver lining to this situation is that if we were to actually embrace the objectives of forest health and fire resiliency there exists a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in the woods that could also send a predictable and sustainable supply of logs to local mills. The dense fiber plantations that make up millions of acres of public and private forestland need to be thinned. This potential marriage of economic and ecological goals offers a brighter future than does the divisive clearcutting legislation that calls for repeating the mistakes of the past.

George Sexton is the Conservation Director of the Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

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