The "New" Forest Service

Larry Harrell lhfotoware at
Mon Mar 15 23:23:34 EST 2004

March 14, 2004 Oregonian
Cutting the controversy 
MAPLETON -- Trees are falling in the moss-draped stands of the Siuslaw
National Forest in Oregon's Coast Range, log trucks are hauling them
away, and not even forest activists are bothered by it.
Indeed, activists known for camping out in trees to save them want
even more of these trees cut.
How can that be in this spotted-owl age of lawsuits, polarization and
gridlock over public forests?
Because Siuslaw officials have seized on an exceptional combination of
community backing, rapidly growing forests and innovative policies to
cut trees without controversy. By thinning overly dense stands, they
are feeding sawmills and aiding wildlife at the same time.
It once was the Northwest's primary logging battleground. Now it's a
national forest that works:
Though cutting remains far below historic heights, the Siuslaw is
among only three of Oregon's 13 national forests exceeding logging
goals set for it by the U.S. Forest Service.
Its logging program earns a profit for taxpayers and has been ranked
as the top money-maker of all national forests.
It's funneling some timber earnings back to local communities still
reeling from the collapse of logging on federal lands that began two
decades ago.
Forest staff and local groups are restoring streams that now hold
seven times as many coho salmon as other nearby stretches, earning
international acclaim.
The forest does almost no clear-cutting, and it logs none of the
old-growth trees that provoke emotional protests elsewhere.
Timber companies and environmental groups often at odds have found a
beachhead of common ground. Forest activists have gone to court not to
stop logging in the Siuslaw, as in other national forests, but to let
it advance.
"I think we became very polarized, but now, hopefully, both sides have
seen that there has to be some common sense put into it," said Kathy
West, assistant vice president of Siuslaw Valley Bank in Mapleton and
a 42-year resident of the town of about 1,000. "People are glad to see
some wood coming out of the forest."
It has not won over everyone. Although Lane County Commissioner Anna
Morrison does not question logging and much of the other forest work,
she doubts the results forest leaders claim.
"What are we getting for the money we're spending, and whose pocket is
that money going in?" she asked. "I don't want to give money to people
to sit around the table some more."
Cutting intensive for years 
It was the crisis of a logging standoff that drove the Siuslaw to
where it stands today.
>From 1960 to 1990, the national forest -- about twice the size of
Multnomah County -- sold about 11 billion board feet of timber,
roughly enough to fill a lineup of logging trucks around the world. It
may have been the most intensive cutting of a single reach of federal
forest of its size.
Crews replaced clear-cut old growth by planting uniform Douglas fir
Mapleton, the heart of logging country, buzzed with sawmills. 
But the Forest Service had known for two decades that logging on the
steep slopes and unstable earth of the Siuslaw's Mapleton District
damaged soil, rivers and fish habitat, a U.S. judge ruled in 1984. He
halted cutting there -- probably the most severe shutdown of federal
logging the Northwest had seen at the time.
The Clinton administration's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan put about 85
percent of the forest into reserves meant to evolve into the stands of
old, large trees protected owls and marbled murrelets prefer.
"The handwriting was on the wall," recalled Dan Karnes, who joined the
forest staff in 1988. "Sale after sale was being appealed. This was
timber country and it was going down fast."
Two-thirds of the forest's budget and staff would soon disappear along
with its timber cut. But the forest was saddled with 2,700 miles of
aging logging roads and landslides tied to past cutting.
"The Siuslaw really was a caldron for all of the forces acting on
national forests," recalled James Furnish, who rose to Siuslaw
supervisor just before the Northwest Forest Plan was released. "We had
changed how we were doing things but we didn't necessarily change what
we were doing. We couldn't get by that way anymore."
Although logging towering old-growth trees turned out lots of wood, it
required costly species surveys. Nine times out of ten, Furnish said,
the creatures turned up and cutting was halted. If not, protesters and
lawsuits were sure things.
"It doesn't take too long to realize you're wasting your money going
after these sales when they would almost invariably never go
anywhere," he said.
What they could go after was 210,000 acres of plantations growing from
past clear-cuts, he said. Much of it lay in the species reserves, but
was too dense for wildlife to use.
Only thinning would help the trees grow into the mature stands the
birds need.
Logging companies use the approach in their timberlands to raise
larger, more valuable trees in less time. Furnish posed the question
to a citizen advisory committee: Keep clear-cutting old growth? Or
turn to thinning?
The consensus was thinning, and "the issue of continuing the clear-cut
harvest pretty well died."
Quick growing timber 
Growing 4 feet a year in dousing rain, trees in the Siuslaw reach 20
inches across in only 20 years. Sawmills yearn for such trees, making
it profitable to thin the Siuslaw's plantations at an age when it
might not be in many other forests. Other forests are unable to reach
logging goals as easily without cutting old growth.
"This place grows trees like no place grows trees," said Todd Merritt,
a forester with Georgia-Pacific, now feeding its mill in Coos Bay with
trees from the Siuslaw.
With a shrunken staff, and a new focus on thinning, the Siuslaw in
2002 turned to a new logging concept: stewardship contracting. Loggers
can choose the trees they cut according to Forest Service criteria,
and must also complete other work, such as erasing deteriorating roads
and pulling weeds. It's work the forest would otherwise hire
contractors to do separately.
All that saves time and money, Karnes said. It helps keep earnings in
the black: The Siuslaw netted at least $1.5 million more from its 2003
timber sales than it spent preparing them.
Freed from cumbersome rules that bind traditional sales, loggers are
more efficient. Truckers hauling the logs carry fuller loads, for
example, lifting their attitudes and their profits. One result: Bids
for timber have almost doubled in price, said Bob Turner, the forest's
contracting foreman.
The forest is also preparing to return a share of proceeds from
stewardship projects to the community. It will come in the form of
grants for habitat restoration.
Environmental activists have criticized stewardship contracting when
the Bush administration has championed it to clear out flammable
Western forests. But in the Siuslaw, they have bought into it.
"We felt we in the conservation community needed to have a vision of
what we're for," said Jeremy Hall of the Oregon Natural Resources
Council, often one of the sternest opponents of federal logging. "A
lot of people see us as just saying, 'No.' But we do see the need for
work to move these forests ahead."
Building public faith 
The Siuslaw has avoided the appeals, lawsuits and protests that bogged
down other forests. Forest Supervisor Gloria Brown, who succeeded
Furnish and has continued his course, tells her staff to earn public
"I've seen, from Washington, D.C., to the Pacific Northwest, all the
controversy over what we do," says Brown. "I've always said
relationships are so important. We taught line officials all about
trees and soils and fires and ecosystems, but we never taught them
about people."
When Brown arrived at the Siuslaw, "I was going to take this concept
and maximize it and by doing so, I realized a benefit I never, ever
hoped for."
The forest has a hard time competing for funds when other forests
confront higher-profile wildfire hazards, she said. A leading
criticism is that the Siuslaw is not thinning enough, especially
because benefits decline as plantations age.
Forest officials agree. Some 10,000 acres in the Siuslaw could
probably be thinned a year, Karnes said. Officials are shooting merely
for half that, which would still double current levels. But so far its
staff has managed scarcely a quarter. Most wood travels down the road
to places such as Coos Bay; the last local sawmill, beset by toughened
state environmental standards, plans to close this spring.
It has not bought timber from the Siuslaw for about 10 years. 
Elsewhere, there is progress. An example is Karnowsky Creek, flowing
into the Siuslaw River near Mapleton. Generations ago it was shunted
into ditches to open pastures for cows, at the cost of salmon habitat.
Now in Forest Service ownership, it again winds lazily among logs like
it once did, young salmon darting amid its shadows.
Its $550,000 resurrection was underwritten in part by the Forest
Service, but also by grants from the state, National Forest Foundation
and volunteer labor. The Soil and Water Conservation District
contracted the work, hiring local workers and cutting costs, officials
said. Local children and their parents worked to sow willows and other
plants along its lush wetlands.
Coho salmon have returned to another restored stream north of Florence
in greater numbers than have been counted since surveys began in 1959,
biologists say.
"It's amazing to see how much the Forest Service has turned around in
their approach over the last 15 years, and I think a lot of it is a
result of their interaction with the community," said Ray Kinney of
the Siuslaw Soil and Water Conservation District.
During the divisive years when logging collapsed, Karnes nearly quit
the Forest Service. He is amazed at how far the Siuslaw has come
"It makes some people very nervous to see us talking with
environmentalists and timber companies at the same time," he said.
"But when we have environmentalists saying, 'Don't hold up this work,'
that's a huge strength. We'd be doing well to hold onto that."

Comment from poster: It truly was inevitable that those timber beasts
would change and adapt or become extinct. This is the new job of the
Forest Service.

Larry,     new-age eco-forester

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