Issues surrounding county payments from O&C forestlands present complex problems requiring thoughtful consideration and creative solutions. Sustainability must drive all potential solutions.
Simplistic thinking evidenced recently by a current Jackson County commissioner lacks the comprehensive awareness of possible solutions to create sustainability in county funding, forest health and delivery of the amenities O&C lands provide, from timber to clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation.
If the rate and manner of logging decreases the capability of forestland to grow timber and provide other amenities, then sustainability as required by law is not attained. For several decades, the primary use of O&C forests has been for timber production, while most other non-extractive amenities have been degraded in the process.
One former Jackson County commissioner uniquely understood the challenges of managing O&C lands sustainably while diversifying the county's economy. Before Republican Don Schofield was elected in 1978, he served as district manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Medford district. Concerned about inadequate reforestation, Schofield conducted an inventory and evaluation of reforestation efforts, which convinced him to recommend a significant reduction in cut levels. As commissioner, Schofield expressed concerns about the county's reliance on unsustainable O&C timber receipts.
From the 1970s to 1990s, BLM's Resource Management Plans lowered the annual PSQ (Potential Sale Quantity) from approximately 350 to 227 to 57 million board feet. Lawsuits, new laws and internal research (Schofield) pointed to successively lower PSQs necessary for providing sustainable levels of timber, clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation.
In the early 1990s, a joint research project with BLM, Headwaters and Southern Oregon University surveyed and evaluated BLM's best plantations within an hour of Ashland. Data indicated that only one plantation exhibited the computer projected growth used to calculate PSQ. Unjustifiably high PSQ is not sustainable.
Forestry practices utilized by most corporate and private industrial timber companies focus on clearcutting the forest, followed by establishing a wood fiber plantation. Short rotation age to next harvest prevents an ecologically functioning forest ecosystem from successfully re-establishing on the site and providing diverse amenities. Industrial forest practices such as clearcutting, tractor logging and herbicide spraying hinder forest sustainability by decreasing the capability of forestland to grow more trees.
Disease and pests plague even-aged monoculture plantations much more than natural forests. Plantations are more likely to burn severely as evidenced by the behavior of the Timbered Rock fire above Elk Creek where private industrial plantations blew up, while the fire generally lay down and underburned adjacent unentered BLM forests. Thousands of dollars of private investments per acre in plantings, herbicides and thinnings went up in smoke.
Here in hot dry southwestern Oregon the industrial forestry model is not sustainable over the long term. Investors in private timber companies should be concerned about sustainability. Everyone who desires healthy sustainable counties should be concerned about placing the timber industry as steward of O&C lands, and basing county economies on an industry dependent on banking and housing cycles.
Pumping more timber out of O&C counties or other federal forests will not guarantee more timber jobs. During the 1980s timber harvest on federal lands reached historic highs, while timber industry employment dropped substantially because of increasing mechanization in logging, technical sawmill innovations, and exports of raw logs from private timberlands.
A study of 325 non-metropolitan counties in 11 Western states concluded that counties with more public lands in protective designations such as national parks and monuments, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges and Wild and Scenic rivers had greater economic growth and increased job diversity than counties depending on industrial resource extraction with little protected land base.
Much of Medford BLM lies in a region that has experienced economic growth and diversification, especially in agriculture (vineyards, organic/specialty farms and ranches), nature-based tourism (hiking, hunting, fishing, river rafting, para-gliding), cultural tourism (arts, music, theater), manufacturing (high-tech, natural food), education, medical services, technical and retirement services. Natural amenities including clean streams, beautiful scenery, intact ecosystems and protected landscapes attract these agents of sustainable economic growth and diversification.
Sustainable solutions to the complex problems of county economies and managing O&C lands must encompass several components:
- Increase forest jobs by expanding contracts for understory thinning and fire hazard reduction on federal lands, especially in the wildland-urban interface and along rural roads.
- Increase sawmill jobs by eliminating raw log exports from private lands and minimally processed logs (cants) from public forests.
- Increase county income by raising property tax levels to parity with similar Western counties.
- Increase economic growth and diversification by managing O&C and other federal lands to emphasize protection and production of natural amenities.
C.B. Thomas of Jacksonville has worked in various capacities in the forests of S.W. Oregon for nearly 40 years.