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Eco warrior: Let's cut more trees

Activist calls for 44 percent increase in federal harvest


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Conservationists such as Andy Kerr envision an Oregon future without clear-cutting (in the Tillamook Forest) and more thinning of plantations and old-growth forests. 
Andy Kerr wants Oregon timber companies to cut down more trees. There’s a surplus of available timber, not a shortage, he says.

Seriously.

“If you would have thought Andy Kerr in 2012 would be calling for increasing timber cuts ... well, isn’t life interesting?” says Kerr, a longtime Oregon conservationist who lives part time in Ashland and Washington, D.C., still fighting to protect vital forests.

Years ago, Kerr was front and center at Oregon Wild (then known as the Oregon Natural Resource Council), helping bring the northern spotted owl to prominence and federal protection, aiding the institution of the Northwest Forest Plan and essentially changing the course of history. Despite that plan, enacted by the Clinton administration in 1993, timber harvesting since the early 1990s has plummeted on federal lands.

But, just as timber interests pine for more harvest opportunities, Kerr claims to have a solution. With assistance from conservation groups, he has authored a study that argues timber companies can increase their harvesting 44 percent each year for the next two decades on federal land — an increase above the average of the past 15 years — leading to 2,700 more jobs, all in a way that would prevent controversy between tree lovers and tree cutters. In his view, timber could be turned into revenue while clean-water and wildlife protections would be kept in place. His plan pertains to land in western Oregon, western Washington and northern California.

Kerr’s study is called “Ecologically Appropriate Restoration Thinning in the Northwest Forest Plan Area.” It states that thinning existing plantations and the under carriage of drier old-growth forests — smaller-diameter trees — on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land would produce 774 million board feet annually, compared to an average of 537 million board feet produced since the enaction of the Northwest Forest Plan.

“We’re going to be urging the Forest Service and BLM to adopt it,” says Kerr, 57, who owns the Larch Co. “Parts of it have been, but it’s not systematic.”

In his plan, old-growth and older trees would be left alone.

Olive branch

Kerr’s plan was met with some skepticism on the other side of the long-term debate.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, says Kerr’s study aims to take focus off the real issue: the supposedly 4 million acres of “matrix” multipurpose land that had been promised to timber companies in the Northwest Forest Plan. Those multiple purposes include thinning, clearcutting or other harvesting techniques by timber companies. Environmentalists are fighting to prevent harvesting, Partin adds, and the federal government has delayed action because of persistent litigation.

Kerr’s study “has good points,” Partin says, and a lot of thinning does need to happen. But, “we have to have more of a landscape approach rather than thinning.” He says that the western side of Oregon has matrix land that has to be addressed.

“In the Northwest Forest Plan, you can only thin and treat them until they reach age 80. At that point in time, they’re supposed to be off limits. What happens when they reach age 80? What do we do with those lands and the rest of the forest?”

So, Partin wouldn’t give a nod of approval to Kerr’s study. “It appears to be an olive branch,” he says. “But, it looks like a pretty smart concept, thinning only in LSR (late-successional reserve) lands.”

Many mills have gone out of business or downsized severely in Oregon, and the trickle-down effect has seen the economies and welfare of small towns suffer, from Medford to Ontario, and, ultimately, Portland. To see a log truck hauling thick older trees is simply a rare sight these days; to see a truck carrying LSR trees is another thing.

Are some mills dinosaurs?

Kerr argues that while many of Oregon’s mills have modernized to accommodate the smaller trees, he labels nine mills in the state as “dinosaurs” that depend on older trees to survive — “socially unacceptable” harvesting, he says. Many of them exist in the area that Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, represents in Congress, namely the Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. in Monroe.

Kerr fears that federal lands would be susceptible to more clear-cutting and use of untested forestry practices.

“These nine mills, their business model is to cut whatever old growth is left, and they’re running out,” Kerr says. “Most of the industry has moved on, but not all of them. ... The timber industry of today is a mixture of an industry that has survived the transition and yet we have a few mills that essentially did the same thing, except louder and harder. The dinosaur tail is still flopping. If you want to be sustainable, you gotta dial it back. That’s always easier said than done.”

Partin begs to differ with Kerr and his “dinosaur” description.

“You have to realize that all of them have modernized,” he says. “Some of them focus not so much on old-growth trees, but larger-diameter trees. Landowners, including state and private, have larger-diameter trees. Andy would like to make you think these are mills that used old-growth and are old dinosaur mills. But, they cut a specific product from a resource that is still available. They are nobody’s dummy that Andy would portray them to be.”

As far as clear-cutting, Partin says it’s a public perception that it’s most economically feasible, but Douglas fir trees need direct sunlight to blossom and, under the state’s Forest Practices Act, “you can’t clear-cut next to other clear cuts; there are rules and regulations that make the art of clear-cutting harder than in past years.”

A native of Creswell who grew up with the opposite mindset of his timber industry neighbors and began working in conservation in the 1970s, Kerr says that his study was 20 years in the making, harkening back to an era when the timber industry still thrived in Oregon. That was before the northern spotted owl, before President Clinton put his name on federal legislation.

In developing the plan, Kerr partnered with conservation groups and Jim Furnish, who oversaw such ecological practices as former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service and forest supervisor on the Siuslaw National Forest. “There hasn’t been an appeal or litigation on the Siuslaw in over a dozen years,” Furnish claims.

Kerr says that timber volume in areas designated by his plan would increase 138 percent in Washington, 100 percent in California and 37 percent in Oregon. The Oregon numbers would partially be offset by a decrease projected for western Oregon BLM lands. Timber harvests would be a byproduct of ongoing forest protections; the study says that “all desired objectives” for forest and watershed restoration wouldn’t be achieved.

The report was published by Conservation Northwest, Geos Institute, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Oregon Wild.

Kerr insists that it’s mutually beneficially to both parties.

“The fundamental reason we did the study is because conservationists are always accused of saying, ‘No,’ ” he says. “Rightly so. So we started writing some numbers, and decided there was more potential timber harvest available than we thought. Conservationists want to increase cuts? Yes we do, but there are certain kinds of logs.”

There’ll be “a helluva fight,” he adds, if Oregon’s old trees are opened for harvest.