The way Peter Hayes explains it, every time the timber industry makes a change to the way it harvests America’s forests, it’s to correct a past mistake.
The vast swaths of replanted tree plantations that cover much of Oregon’s private lands today are the industry’s reaction to running into the Pacific Ocean after years of clear-cutting, he said.
And Hayes should know. He comes from a long line of American foresters.
The first phase, he said, was when Euro-Americans landed on the East Coast and began logging to clear the land for farming. Then came Phase II: Mine it and move on.
“My family was involved in all five of these phases,” Hayes said. “The ‘mine it and move on’ – there was a whole lot of land that was cut to the bone from the 1920s to the 1950s – just ravaged, and they just walked off and left it. Those lands turned into dead-end cycles of bramble patches. Give them 500 years and they become forests, but in the short run, they wouldn’t, and there was a public interest in having more productive lands.”
What followed, was Phase III: Tree farms. Foresters began to replant forests because they needed wood for future harvests. But then came a wave of environmentalism; people decided they wanted more than just wood products out of their forests. They wanted habitat for wildlife and the protection of shared resources.
This led us to where we are today, explained Hayes: Phase IV. We still have tree farms, or plantations, but the Oregon Forest Practices Act also lays out some environmental protections and guidelines.
This phase of forestry, Hayes said, incorporates multiple ideals but rewards landowners for only one: timber production.
For this reason, he said, “the rational landowner is only going to do the thing that they’re rewarded for.”
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Hayes is part of a growing network of timber company operators who are trying to usher in Phase V: managing their forests for both the timber that brings them money, and the ecological benefits that do not – and it’s a drastic departure from common current forestry practices.
It’s all about placing long-term sustainability above short-term profits, he said.
Many of the big players in America’s timber industry today are risking the future viability of our forests.
We don’t know how current practices – plant, clear cut, spray herbicide and repeat – will affect the most valuable part of the forest: the soil, Hayes said.
“It’s the great experiment.”
If you’ve ever traveled west along Highway 26 for a weekend getaway at the coast, you’ve probably noticed clear-cutting is still alive and well in Oregon’s privately owned forests.
While a freshly clear-cut mountainside can be a jarring sight, some may take solace in the notion that Oregon has laws that require replanting, as evidenced by the many recently planted treescapes – and industry-sponsored billboards reminding motorists of these laws along the same stretch of highway.
At first glance, these “Phase IV” replanted landscapes of Douglas fir, hemlock, cedar and spruce might resemble native forests, but many scientists and environmentalists say they’re nothing of the sort.
Instead, they say, these tree farms are little more than cornfield-like rows of pine or fir trees that are all the same age and same height. They also argue that this system of forestry is damaging our watersheds, threatening native wildlife and contributing to climate change.
Foresters, however, seem split. Some, like Hayes, agree with most of these claims, and others, like Seth Barnes at Oregon Forest and Industries Council, say forestry has come a long way.
Barnes said laws governing foresters in Oregon “are based on science and have been adjusted over the years as new science emerges.” And, he said, most foresters he knows believe those laws are “keeping the forests in forestry.”
Doug Maguire, a professor of forest management at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, is an expert in intensively managed forests.
“There are a bunch of things that happen in planted forests that are probably done from the standpoint of one objective,” he said, “and that typically has been timber production.”
And a lot of what happens is up to the landowner and his or her objectives.
In some tree plantations, trees are so densely packed, their crowns eventually touch as they grow, blocking out the sun and limiting growth on the forest floor, he explained. While some landowners might manage for this by spacing trees irregularly or thinning early on in the growing process, he said, others do not.
But regardless of spacing, the cookie-cutter height and characteristics of the trees creates limitations that deny many woodland creatures the diversity they need to survive.
“A lot of species that nest in the older, aged forests need multilayer canopies because that provides protection to them,” said Kim Nelson, a research and wildlife biologist at OSU.
Nelson has been studying the marbled murrelet, a seabird that flies inland to nest, since the 1980s. The murrelet was listed as abundant in the 1900s, she said, but today is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act – a status that gives it habitat protections on private lands in Washington and California, but not in Oregon.
She said the decline of the murrelet, along with other bird species such as the spotted owl and woodpeckers, is attributed to habitat loss from forestry.
Jason Gonzales at Oregon Wild said coho salmon and hundreds of smaller and “less charismatic” species such as salamanders, frogs, lichens and other fauna are also threatened as a direct result of forestry practices in the Pacific Northwest.
But Nelson pointed out that some private landowners are voluntarily trying to employ practices that are consistent with wildlife needs.
She’s studying what buffers around murrelet territory should look like and whether the birds can be attracted to new nesting sites – and she’s doing it with funding from the timber industry.
“The timber industry, including Oregon Forest and Industries Council, lobbied the Oregon Legislature, saying they wanted marbled murrelet research done so that some of these questions that they want to know, about how to better provide for the murrelet, are answered,” she said.
The timber industry, through a self-imposed tax on lumber, funds a lot of research at OSU’s College of Forestry, Maguire said.
A benefit of this, he said, is third-party, neutral research that’s publishable in peer-reviewed journals.
Conflicting opinions among timber interests regarding research funding serve as an example of how deeply the industry’s values are split.
“I’ve witnessed some very interesting, some very heated arguments among industry members,” Maguire said. “There are some that will say, ‘Why should we be funding someone to find stuff out that is going to diminish our ability to harvest?’ And there are others that are just adamant that’s what we do as foresters; that’s our responsibility.”
Gonzales, who leads Oregon Wild’s Forest and Watershed campaign, said another way tree plantations differ from native forests is that their interiors are warmer. He said this has contributed to the warming of Oregon’s streams, which last year killed millions of fish.
An OSU study released earlier this year compared the microclimates of old-growth forests to plantation forests in the Oregon Cascades, finding that tree plantation interiors can be up to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.
One of the study’s authors, OSU professor Matt Betts, told the college’s department of News and Research Communications: “To the untrained eye, plantations might look similar to old-growth forests in terms of the aspects that are well known to influence temperature, particularly canopy cover. So the magnitude of the cooling effect of old-growth structure is somewhat surprising.”
Gonzales said watershed warming is a “major problem all over the state, especially in far western Oregon – throughout the coastal areas of lakes, with algae blooms that are dangerous, rivers that are warm and fish that are dying.”
The carbon question
In the era of climate change, one potential problem with clear-cut logging jumps out: It involves removing entire patches of Pacific Northwest forests, which are shown to have tremendous potential for carbon dioxide sequestration.
A study authored by faculty at OSU’s Department of Forest Science and University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources in 2002 found old growth forests in the western portion of the Pacific Northwest store more carbon dioxide per acre than any other forests in the world.
Some of that carbon is absorbed in the lush understory – the thick blanket of shrubs, ferns and other plants that covers the forest floor but gets cleared away after a clear cut and experiences limited growth in densely packed tree plantations.
One group of researchers argues the state needs to start accounting for the timber industry’s long-ignored contribution to climate change.
In a November 2015 report, the Center for Sustainable Economy and GEOS Institute in Ashland pegged the timber industry as the second-largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, surpassed only by transportation.
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According to “Clearcutting our Carbon Accounts,” logging practices in western Oregon are undermining the state’s climate adaptation goals by using an “accounting trick” that takes credit for carbon dioxide absorbed in forests conserved by nonprofits, small landowners and state agencies, giving the illusion that the industry is carbon neutral.
“Those big trees in those older forests are big sticks of carbon on the landscape,” said Dominick DellaSala, one of the report’s authors and president and chief scientist at the GEOS Institute. “Up to two-thirds of that carbon is released quickly to the atmosphere after accounting for stores in wood products.”
Planting new trees to replace the old doesn’t make up for that carbon loss, he said; “those young stands, for the first 15 years or so, are a source of carbon dioxide pollution.”
He explained that in an area where a young stand of trees is growing out of a recent logging event, more carbon is emitted into the atmosphere than the trees are able to take in. Discarded branches and needles, or logging slash, that’s been left on the ground decomposes rapidly, sending previously stored carbon up into the atmosphere. Additionally, carbon in the upper soil layer is released when the soil is disturbed during the operation, and carbon left over from photosynthesis is released during the night when the young trees respire.
“So it’s a cumulative process of release that you get in a younger stand, which is acting as a carbon source,” he said, “as compared to an older stand, which is acting as a carbon sink.”
Linc Cannon disagrees with DellaSala’s findings. Cannon is the director of forest resources and taxation at Oregon Forest and Industries Council, which represents the timber industry. He said he’s been looking at carbon in forests for about 10 years.
He points to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 stated in its summary on forestry, “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”
He said the carbon stored in trees is already part of the “natural carbon cycle,” and will inevitably get released sooner or later, whether it be through decay, wildfire, or slash and biomass burning after logging.
Bigger, older trees experience accelerated growth and an increased ability to absorb larger amounts of carbon, according to the findings of a team of 38 international researchers published in science journal Nature in 2014. It’s a study that’s been cited as a reason for preserving old growth forests and leaving larger trees on the landscape.
Maguire, at OSU’s College of Forestry, said this study “was the talk of the town for a while. Some people vehemently disagreed; some agreed. It’s one thing to say I agree with that or I don’t agree, but it’s a different thing to say I have data that would suggest otherwise. The thing that really annoys me about my own profession is when people will claim something and you know darn well it’s their opinion and they have no substantial data to back it up. That’s not the way we should be doing things. That just hurts our profession.”
The Oregon Global Warming Commission has convened a Forest Carbon Subcommittee to answer questions about the interplay between the carbon content of Oregon’s forests and current logging practices. This was initiated in response to the report that called out the timber industry for its carbon dioxide emissions.
The subcommittee is expected to have its report and recommendations to the governor and Legislature before the start of the 2017 legislative session, said DellaSala, who sits on the subcommittee.
The subcommittee is a mix of stakeholders, including forest and environmental scientists and timber industry representatives. Cannon, who sat on the initial committee that looked at forest carbon emissions for the commission, also plans to attend every meeting.
DellaSala said that with OSU environmental scientists Beverly Law and Mark Harmon at the table, he has “confidence that the best science will be used to assess carbon from forestry operations.”
Whether the group can agree on recommendations, he said, is yet to be seen.
Different way of doing business
Following a morning drizzle on a temperate afternoon in May, the owners of Zena Forest Products, Sarah Deumling and her son Ben Deumling, led a group of policymakers and other interested parties on a tour of their sustainable forest.
The Deumlings, like Hayes, have been experimenting with methods for producing timber in a way that incorporates ecological benefits.
Ben began the tour by explaining how his family manages its 1,300 acres in the Willamette Valley, just northwest of Salem.
While federally protected wilderness areas are the most biologically diverse and environmentally beneficial, they cost money to maintain rather then generating a profit, he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, a tree plantation is the least biologically diverse and beneficial to the environment, but it’s the most profitable.
The trick, he said, is to find a balance between the two, where the forest benefits commonwealth resources, such as clean water and wildlife, but also generates a profit, making its upkeep viable for the landowner.
“We’ve been working on how to make it profitable for 30 years, and I think we’ve figured it out,” he said.
They harvest some Douglas fir, and older hardwood trees that they mill on sight, along with wood from neighboring forests. They also make their own high-end flooring and custom wood products.
But they don’t clear cut, they don’t compact the soil, and they use minimal amounts of herbicide, said Sarah Deumling, a grandmother who’s known to take her aggression out on invasive species with a small hand saw, hacking them down rather then spraying them with herbicide.
“If all you have is a row of trees because you sprayed everything else, you’ve killed the frogs, the slugs – and carbon is absorbed by this green stuff on the ground,” she said.
The Deumlings’ forest contains a wide variety of trees, including Douglas fir, oak and maple, and has a multilayer canopy – much like a native forest.
They spot harvest trees that have reached a particular value, cutting them down with chainsaws and pulling them out by chain so as not to disturb the forest floor with additional road building.
“Forests like this, healthy and diverse – here’s where I win,” she said. “They don’t blow over in a windstorm. When we get a heavy rain, the soil acts as a sponge because it’s not compacted, and insect infestations and disease don’t explode because they are usually species specific, and we have variety here.”
Plus, she added, “hardwoods don’t burn as much.”
Much of their forest management is based on a German model that Sarah calls “near to nature forestry.” Her husband was a forester in Germany before persuading his employers to invest in Zena Forest. He died in 1996, and now his wife and son own and manage the property, with hopes that the next generation of Duemlings will continue their legacy.
Hayes, who manages his own three forests using similar methods, said German foresters moved toward more sustainable practices after they ran into serious problems with the loss of soil productivity after years of intensive-harvest tree plantations – much like is being practiced on a large scale in Oregon.
The big shift
Hayes said foresters such as himself and the Duemlings are now looking to the next stage: Phase V, where that perfect balance of ecology and profit is achieved.
His company, Hyla Woods, is Douglas fir dominant and profitable, he said.
But a lot needs to happen before Phase V is viable for the industry as a whole.
While Sarah Duemling may be able to hack away blackberry bushes with a hand saw, for a company like Weyerhaeuser or Stimson Lumber, it just isn’t practical or economically viable. Plus, Zena Forest enjoys the help of volunteers who believe in its owners’ mission.
“If it’s really going to work economically,” Hayes said, “you have got to create some incentive for something other than just cutting a tree.”
Incentives such as carbon credits for maintaining understories and old growth and subsidies or monetary incentives for taking care of our watersheds and wildlife habitats are a potential way to make Phase V more attractive to other timber producers, he said.
Another force that could push forestry practices into the future is the consumer. If this happened, Hayes said, it would resemble the way changes in agriculture came about.
“Food didn’t change overnight,” he said. “People worked on it for decades and decades, and a lot of the early adopters struggled, and now you can go to Fred Meyer and there’s a beautiful, organic spread of produce.”
This change happened because businesses succeed only if they listen to their consumers, Hayes said. But now, he said, “the dominant message is: We don’t know where our wood is coming from; we don’t care where our wood is coming from; just keep it coming, and keep it cheap.”
Hayes recently sat on the Oregon Board of Forestry, a seven-member citizen board that implements forest policies. Stakeholders on the board often had conflicting views, but he understood where timber industry representatives were coming from.
“Big industrial owners are in a corporate structure that, regardless of what their personal values might be, puts pressures on the leaders to always be maximizing short-term profit,” he said. “They are looking at short-term results, often at the expense of not giving adequate weight to the long-term consequences.”
He said ultimately, there needs to be a cultural shift where people begin to engage with the future of their forests.
“People should be much more aware of how their life is directly impacted by the forests we have,” he said. “Whether it’s opening the tap and getting a beautiful glass of water or having cool clean air or dealing with climate issues, providing adequate habitat for a variety of other life that we have a responsibility to, I think people underestimate how much their life depends on forests, and I think if you became more aware of that, then you might be more engaged with figuring out how to possibly shape it.”