Efforts to overhaul forest management underway

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer April 23, 2013 08:08 pm

A group of politicians, environmentalists and loggers are working to untie the Gordian Knot that is keeping workers out of the forest, realizing that top-down forest management is no longer working and only collaboration with stakeholders will.

“This thing’s off and running,” said Curry County Commissioner David Itzen, who was instrumental in bringing together the oft-warring factions to form the Curry County Forestry Collaborative. “We’ve been told to ‘get her done, and we’ll be in the hunt.’”

The group includes representatives from U.S. and state legislatures, the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, Curry County, watershed groups and others specializing in meadow and oak restoration, commercial thinning, wildfire, and other aspects of forest management.

The group’s goal is to work from the grassroots-up to expedite methods to increase logging in the woods, maintain stream and estuary health and reduce fire danger.

The collaborative of more than 30 people held its third meeting in Gold Beach Monday to outline future strategies — and it received accolades, encouragement, support and promises of participation from representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and state and federal legislators.

Timing is critical, said Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Supervisor Rob MacWhorter.

And the old ways of logging just aren’t working anymore, he said. Clearcuts led to lawsuits; “stewardship” was summarily ignored. Environmentalists are looking out for the spotted owl, while loggers are looking out for their bottom line.

In the past, the Forest Service has announced it will hold a timber sale and the bidding begins. There is little, if any, input from the communities it could affect.

But a collaborative effort could prioritize areas it believes are important to log, protect and otherwise enhance, and direct the Forest Service to conduct work toward those goals.

For example, if the collaborative group were to determine the vegetation of the Lower Rogue River should be the top priority, the Forest Service could determine the work to be done, including logging for the economy and undergrowth clearing to address fire danger — all the while improving the health of nearby waterways.

Or, the collaboration could choose the area around Agness, which has been determined to be at high risk of fire. There, ridge-clearing could create firebreaks while helping the local economy, or trees that are encroaching on meadows removed to provide a healthier wildlife habitat.

“We have an opportunity to move out of gridlock and toward more management with a common ground,” Brett Brownscombe of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office said. “The collaboration will work if it’s bottom-up. But, from the top, we want to be there to help. It’s hugely important in these challenging times.”

“We see the significance of lost timber revenues in our county,” Itzen said. “Any solution has to be centered around our timber resources. Economic development by itself cannot fill the gap (of lost federal timber revenue).

This year, funding that comes to the region will be spent on “forest emphasis,” including restoration, community stability, ecosystems services, and the emphasis of “treasures,” such as Wild and Scenic-designated rivers.

That’s where a collaboration of interests could influence the direction taken by the Forest Service.

“A collaboration is the way to get to where we need to go,” MacWhorter said. “It’s the only way we’re going to get to where we need to go. We can’t do it single focused any longer and just say, ‘Timber sale.’ Those days are over. We’ve worked on all the easy lands, the low-hanging fruit.”

Although wildlife biologists, botanists and watershed representatives were in the meeting, there was a notable absence of those in the more “extreme” end of the environmental movement.

Itzen said he plans to invite that contingency to participate, as well.

“We need to strengthen that wing, and we’re going to do it,” he said.

The situation has been dire for a long time, as is reflected in the closure of hundreds of mills in the past decade — including one last week in Cave Junction that employed 80 people.

“We’re at a point of urgency — a huge amount of urgency,” Brownscombe said. “Certain people in urban areas do not live it day to day. But here, it’s hard to disconnect healthy environments and the social life of these communities.”

The pipeline of logs to the mills is nearly empty — and will be nonexistent by 2015.

Historically, more than 300 million board-feet of lumber per year was culled from the forest here.

“We’re not going back to those days,” MacWhorter said.

About 74 million board feet is under contract in this region of the Forest Service land, and 40 million to 50 million board feet expected in 2014-2015 from Eden Ridge in the Powers Ranger District.

South Coast Lumber is the primary purchaser of that wood, employing some 450 people.

“There is nothing short-term in the hopper,” MacWhorter said. “This takes us out to ’15. Now’s the time to act. Yeah, it will take awhile, but it’s the only way you’re going to get it.”

“A horrible knot has been created that no one can figure out how to untie,” Itzen said of gridlock in gaining access to federal lands. “The timing is good. If we move fast, and have our plans together, it’s going to be a quick thing.”

MacWhorter encouraged people to continue working on its priorities.

“Don’t take the cue that it’s not a great project,” he said. “This forest (service) can make these decisions, so when we get the call, we’re ready to go.”