State forestry leaders are taking a new cut at how to manage state forest lands in a three-county region that includes Washington, Tillamook and Clatsop counties.
On Monday, an Oregon Department of Forestry subcommittee met in Salem to discuss an innovative forest management concept for northwest Oregon forests that may satisfy loggers and tree-huggers alike by dividing the forest into distinct conservation and timber production zones.
State-owned forests make up only about 3 percent of Oregons forest lands, with national forests and private landowners owning the rest. But even at 3 percent, the states portion still amounts to 800,000 acres, and about 500,000 acres of the total are located primarily in northwest Oregon and would be impacted by this proposed change.
The management of state forests is funded largely by timber sales, which crashed during the economic downturn when the housing market collapsed. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) budget used to support state forests also collapsed, forcing it to cut staffing and programs. County services, including schools, suffered too.
In 2012, the Oregon Board of Forestry determined the current forest management approach would be unable to make enough money to satisfy county and state expectations and also fund forest management, so Gov. John Kitzhaber called for a new plan that would increase conservation measures and financial stability.
A stakeholder group comprising representatives from the timber industry, the conservation community and recreationalists came up with five management plans that ranged from selling off much of the forest lands to increasing taxes and recreation fees. Those five plans were eventually narrowed down, and one was selected Monday by a Board of Forestry subcommittee.
The chosen plan, officially titled Land Allocation Approach, would divide forestland into production and conservation zones. The hope is that large swaths dedicated to forest preservation and healthy habitats will make conservation efforts more effective, while larger chunks of forest managed mainly for timber would bring more money.
In my opinion, its about certainty, said Mike Cafferata, an ODF Forest Grove district forester. Conservationists are guaranteed a certain amount of the forest at least 30 percent as are timber producers.
The new plan would clearly define areas of the forest for one purpose or another.
Details will be decided in the coming weeks before a Nov. 5 meeting in Portland, where public comment will be accepted and the Board of Forestry could still technically reject the new approach. After that, a more detailed draft of the new management plan will be developed.
Under the current management plan, most parts of the forest could at some point be vulnerable to logging.
The whole landscape eventually gets sucked in, said Bob Van Dyk, a Forest Grove resident and forest policy manager for the Wild Salmon Center.
Right now, ODF manages five forest habitat types that are continuously cycling from newly planted stands through to old-growth areas. But these diverse landscapes havent been providing enough timber sales, Cafferata said.
Although the new plan designates swaths to be managed primarily for either conservation or economic benefits, it also calls for some conservation measures in production zones and some active management in conservation zones that will help with habitat efforts. In addition, a range of additional zones could be added.
Wider strips of unharvested timber bordering streams, and more snags and live trees left standing in recently cut areas would all be required under the new plan, according to the draft, which also stipulates that all old-growth trees will be maintained, including all stands, patches or individual trees.
Old-growth trees are rare in the Tillamook State Forest, however, as most were lost to the Tillamook Burn, a series of devastating wildfires that spanned the 1930s to 1950s.
The new concept sets a goal of establishing a habitat conservation plan that would allow forest managers to create sufficient habitat for various species to fulfill requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Currently, foresters establish conservation areas around flagged species, such as northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets. Under a habitat conservation plan, forest managers wouldnt have to maintain specific habitats where they know these species are nesting, but would have to provide an adequate environment for them.
Conservation zones will also include habitat for other wildlife, fish and plants. Some conservation efforts listed in the draft, such as leaving more standing timber by streams, should help species such as the threatened coho salmon.
There will also be a greater emphasis placed on complex younger stands young forests with diverse vegetation which provide habitat for wildlife.
The new plan might satisfy the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed an intent to sue Oregon Department of Forestry officials and the governor earlier this year for planning, authorizing, and conducting logging, timber hauling, and road construction and maintenance activities in the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests that significantly increase sediment delivery to coho streams, reduce input of large woody debris to streams, and cause take of threatened Oregon coast coho in violation of the [Endangered Species Act].
The proposals conservation strategy must satisfy guidelines under the Endangered Species Act, or the federal government could step in and bring timber production to a halt.
Van Dyk, who comes to the debate from the conservationist side, commends aspects of the new plan, including establishing a multi-million dollar conservation fund and a theoretical increase in conservation land.
Ray Jones, a member of the stakeholder group who works for Stimson Lumber in Gaston, also wants to see a conservation plan established. At Mondays meeting, there were discussions of creating a fund that would pay for conservation projects through donations, not timber sales, he said. However, Jones said a conservation fund needs to have a steady, reliable source of funding, which would not be found through donations.
Jones added that he thinks the forest should be divided into 30 percent conservation land, with the rest dedicated to timber production to make the plan financially feasible. But conservationists such as Van Dyk seem unlikely to be satisfied with the bare minimum of 30 percent.
The devil is in the details, said Van Dyk, a Pacific University professor who worries the conservation zone will be too small and production zones will be too big.
But conservationists and timber professionals agree the plan has potential.
People who care about long-term conservation, fish, recreation and endangered species this is an opportunity for them to gain confidence that those values are going to be honored, Van Dyk said. I like the potential durability of it. Were open to it.
One of the hardest things to measure and to put a value on is conservation, added Jones.
Cafferata sees the plans potential, but is less certain conservationists and timber producers will be able to find a strategy that satisfies both.
The debate over Oregons forests will go on no matter what plan they choose, said Cafferata.