Home News Restoration plans for endangered forests include logging, but some are questionable

Restoration plans for endangered forests include logging, but some are questionable

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In a swath of the Pacific Northwest, one of North America’s most important tree species is dying at an alarming rate. This spring, as in past years, the needles of Douglas fir trees in the forests of southwestern Oregon began to turn yellow, red, and then fall to the ground.

Experts believe the fires are caused by a combination of factors, including insect attacks, drought and rising temperatures caused by climate change. Decades of forest fire suppression have disrupted the natural balance of the ecosystem, exacerbating the fire problem.

“Drought, heat and climate change are killing trees across the board, and there’s no clear way to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Rob Jackson, an ecologist at Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability who studies how climate change is affecting forests and grasslands. “We’re killing forests.”

The crisis in Oregon shows how critical forest management is as climate change alters the natural world. Foresters say in many cases they need to cut down Douglas fir, both dead and alive, to minimize wildfire risk, promote forest health and help ecosystems adapt to climate change. Their plans include selling some of the wood for recycling.

But the plans have touched a raw nerve among some environmentalists, who distrust government agencies and accuse them of favoring logging over conservation.

“I understand why environmental groups are skeptical, and they should be,” said Mindy Crandall, an associate professor of forest policy at Oregon State University. Federal agencies “have not listened to society for too long.”

The distrust reflects a challenge: How can the agencies, which control much of the American West, juggle the competing missions of conservation, resource extraction and fire safety as forest health deteriorates across the West?

Douglas firs are a keystone tree species in the region’s vast, ecologically diverse forests, essential for sustaining a wide variety of plant and animal life. They are also one of the country’s most important timber species, used extensively in home construction and for Christmas trees.

In Southwest Oregon, more species are dying The increase from 2015 to 2019 was higher than the previous 40 years combinedWhile mortality has been concentrated in areas with lower Douglas fir elevations and rainfall ranges, it has spread to other areas since 2020: In 2021, the state had less than 5,000 acres of tree death; More than 350,000 acres by 2022.

This year, the Biden administration formally strengthened Bureau of Land Management The bureau and other federal agencies have become more equitable and noticeably more focused on climate change over the past few decades, experts including Dr. Crandall said.

However, environmental groups still Nearly a century of government-sanctioned deforestation.

Nathan Gehres grew up in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon in the 1980s. At the time, the region was riven by conservation issues, known locally as the “Timber Wars,” as environmentalists fought to limit logging projects sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“I know some people call them the Timber and Mines Bureau,” said Mr. Grace, who now works for the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to developing consensus solutions for natural resource management. “They’ve made mistakes in the past, and I think there’s hardly any government agency that hasn’t made mistakes in the past. But at the same time, three-quarters of the Applegate Valley is federal land. So they’re an extremely important partner.”

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing a multi-year project, called the Strategic Operations Plan for Safety, or SOS, to remove live and dead trees that officials say are most likely to pose safety risks during wildfires on about 5,000 acres of land managed by the agency in the Applegate Valley.

Because it is so costly to simply remove dead trees, living trees will likely be sold as timber “to defray the cost of leaving the forest,” said Elizabeth Burghard, a regional manager for the bureau.

The Bureau of Land Management is trying to do community outreach. Ms. Burghard’s team recently invited residents on a site visit to view dead trees to show the community the extent of the crisis, ease concerns and build local awareness of the urgency of the problem.

Luke Ruediger, an area resident and conservation director for the environmental group Klamath Forest Alliance, attended that site visit and said he tried to keep an open mind about the BLM’s intentions. But while he was alarmed by the decline in forest health, he said he still worried the agency could manipulate the situation to justify selling more timber for commercial purposes.

Mr. Rudiger acknowledged that there was a need to address the fire danger in the region. “But there has always been strict forest management here,” he said. “There has always been a bias against the timber industry.”

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a forest conservation advocacy group, who visited the forest with Mr. Ruediger and saw the Douglas fir die-off firsthand, also said he remained skeptical about the agency’s motives. “These agencies choose scientific methods to achieve a desired outcome,” he said.

“You have to deal with climate change because that’s the main reason for this,” Dr. de la Sala added. “You have to reduce the pressure on the forests through this kind of logging.”

Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management say the SOS program is designed to directly improve safety, especially for firefighters. Jena Volpe, a fire ecologist with the bureau, says the agency is confident its program will be successful based on 15 years of monitoring interventions.

“When the Bureau of Land Management conducts commercial timber sales, our primary goal is forest health, and the economic value of the trees is a byproduct of that,” said Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the bureau’s Medford, Ore., field office. “That’s something a lot of the public doesn’t necessarily understand. Our commercial timber sales are really about forest health.”

Researchers in Oregon and across the country are stressing the need for the Bureau of Land Management and other landowners to control Douglas fir decline. It’s not just the Bureau of Land Management that’s dealing with trees in crisis. The City of Ashland, Oregon, is also taking action to remove dead and dying Douglas fir to control public safety risks and work to improve forest health.

As forests become less healthy, lest they be disturbed, they in many cases become more susceptible to severe wildfires and more vulnerable to drought and disease, the researchers said.

Instead, it will become increasingly important to manage these trees to increase safety, improve climate resilience, and even create sustainable forms of extraction. This could mean thinning trees in specific areas to reduce tree density, removing dead trees, or planting species that are more resilient in hot climates.

While it may seem intuitive to remove human interference and allow the forest to return to some form of balance, the researchers say that after centuries of human intervention, the forest is actually unable to correct itself.

“There is a real need to reduce tree density,” said Dr. Crandall of Oregon State University. “We have altered the natural system so much over the past 150 years, primarily by suppressing fire, that the forests are completely out of balance.”

But achieving that goal will be a challenge for federal agencies, said Rachel Hamby, policy director at the nonpartisan conservation group Western First Center.

“They have to try to make everybody happy, but they end up making everybody unhappy,” she said.

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