Oregon's public forests need a fresh start

A hike through any of Oregon's mature or old-growth forests will convince even the skeptic that these forests provide irreplaceable services that often go unnoticed. While the Obama administration considers their fate, old forests are hard at work purifying our drinking water and providing countless wildlife and fisheries benefits to local economies. They also are scrubbing the air we breathe of dangerous greenhouse gas pollution, in the process, lessening the severity of global climate change.

In a welcomed reversal of the Bush administration's efforts to unravel the Northwest Forest Plan, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it is serious about restoring scientific integrity and common sense to forest planning. We thank Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for his leadership for sending the Bureau of Land Management's Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR) and the scientifically flawed spotted owl recovery plan to the scrap heap, acknowledging that these decisions were illegal and politically motivated. We also thank Sen. Ron Wyden. It was at his insistence that the inspector general investigated and subsequently uncovered rampant political interference in science, including the owl plan, under the Bush administration.

The Obama administration made the right call on WOPR. Scientific reviews by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Geological Survey, Pacific Northwest Research Station, and the BLM science coordinator revealed that the BLM significantly underestimated the WOPR's logging impacts. Additional reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that the BLM logging plans would pollute streams, damage fisheries and threatened species and elevate fire risks. The WOPR also depended on an equally flawed spotted owl recovery plan that repeatedly failed independent scientific peer review because it would reduce habitat protections for the owl and hundreds of other species that depend on older forests.

The Obama administration saw the legal writing on the wall. For Oregon communities that depend on clean water and healthy fisheries, all of which have suffered from decades of unsustainable logging, pulling the WOPR was the only responsible choice.

So what's next? The BLM should tear a page from the playbook of the Siuslaw and Rogue-Siskiyou National Forests. These forests have shifted management to restoration activities that include thinning fire-prone and biologically impoverished tree plantations, repairing and decommissioning failing and unneeded forest roads, and restoring fish habitat. This successful recipe has sent timber to local mills, created family wage jobs, minimized controversy and maintained a healthier forest and fishery.

There are several hundred thousand acres of industrial plantations on BLM land that would benefit from such thinning while employing a local work force. And there are willing partners in the conservation community and the timber industry ready to support this type of forest management in places such as Medford. However, the Obama administration must avoid repeating the mistakes of the WOPR by being mindful of what mainly drives timber jobs in the region. Housing starts remain in the tank, and flooding the market with federal logs when demand is low will not stimulate the economy, particularly as private timber land owners hold back supply for more favorable timber pricing.

It is also time to enlist public lands in efforts to mitigate climate change. Studies from Oregon State University show that Oregon's coastal, old-growth forests store more carbon per acre than almost any forest on earth. When these forests are cut down, up to two-thirds of the carbon they store in their massive tree trunks and rich soils is released from leftover logging slash and the transport, processing and manufacture of wood products. More carbon dioxide is released by logging than is released by severe forest fires. The BLM WOPR would have increased old-forest logging by 400 percent, releasing the carbon dioxide equivalent of a large coal-fired power plant operating for more than three decades. Even with replanting, it would take centuries to make up for the carbon dioxide released from such logging.

The Obama administration has made important strides in working to restore the integrity of science at the Interior Department and directing the BLM to focus on projects where there is common ground and sound science. We agree with the Mail Tribune that Senator Wyden needs to move the region forward. This means legislatively protecting mature and old-growth forests so they can continue to soak up carbon dioxide, provide clean drinking water, and outstanding salmon and wildlife habitat. Creating a restoration economy and ending controversial and ecologically damaging practices would give Oregonians a sustainable path forward.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D. is president and chief scientist for the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy (www.nccsp.org). DellaSala also served on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service recovery team for the northern spotted owl.

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