After the summer of fire we had in Oregon and the West, there has been a lot of discussion about the causes of all those fires. Some argue climate change, while others blame a lack of forest management. The truth is that both factors are to blame.
A recent study from Oregon State University and a new publication from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station highlight the need for more active management on National Forests, as a changing climate contributes to more severe fire seasons.
In the study, Matthew Reilly, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the OSU College of Forestry, led a team of researchers who analyzed patterns of landscape change in the eastern Cascades of Washington, Oregon and northern California. The team examined low-, medium- and high-intensity fires in ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and subalpine forests from 1985 to 2010.
The study found that about 30 percent of subalpine forests and 10 percent of mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forests burned during the 25-year study period. About a third of the area burned with high severity. The study also found that forest restoration work to make forests more fire-resilient has fallen far short of the level needed to make a difference on a landscape scale.
The study covered all forestlands. But in eastern Oregon, nearly 70 percent of the forestland is managed by the federal government, predominantly by the U.S. Forest Service, so the results seem to be most applicable to National Forests.
The Reilly team’s study has been published online by the academic journal Ecological Applications, and you can read a full report of the findings here. A news release from OSU about the study is also available here.
Like the OSU study, a new report demonstrates the need for more active management on National Forests in Oregon. Oregon’s Forest Resources, 2001-2010: Ten-Year Forest Inventory and Analysis Report is now available online through the Forest Service TreeSearch webpage. This publication is an overview of the status of Oregon’s forests based on the latest data from the PNW Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program, and includes an extensive set of 51 summary data tables. Additional inventory information and another 89 summary tables are included in the online supplement.
This report has tons of great information and will be the subject of future blogs. However, I want to call attention to its discussion of the current rates of tree growth, removals and mortality on National Forest System lands.
The table below is a summary of average annual volume and percentage of growth, mortality and removals on National Forest timberland in Oregon. Timberland is the portion of the forest that is productive enough to manage for timber production and is not reserved for wilderness areas, parks or other non-timber uses.
The data shown in this table is for eastern Oregon, western Oregon and all of Oregon. What jumps out at me from this data is the relationship between mortality and removals. Overall, National Forest timberlands had 56 percent mortality of their growth and only 9 percent removals, which includes harvests and non-commercial cutting. This mortality figure contrasts sharply with state and private forests, which had 19 percent and 12 percent mortality, respectively.
Mortality can be from fire, disease, insects or blowdown. The FIA inventory doesn’t break it down by causes, but historically disease and insects account for the largest volume of tree mortality in Oregon.
The high rate of mortality on National Forest timberlands is in direct contrast with the low rate of removals, including timber harvest. A very different relationship is evident on non-National Forest timberlands.
Non-National Forest timberlands (state and private) have combined mortality rates of 13 percent and combined removal rates of 92 percent. Clearly, timberlands that are more actively managed, as indicated by removal rates, are healthier, as indicated by mortality rates. These forests have fewer dry, dead trees, also known as “zombie trees,” that can fuel the spread of a wildfire. This makes them much less vulnerable to catastrophic fires.
In the end, the best way forward to reduce catastrophic fires is the same way to reduce tree mortality on National Forest timberlands: increased active management. That’s because it not only helps reduce mortality, it also increases a forest’s fire resiliency.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry
In 1968, Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and included southwest Oregon’s Rogue River as one of the original eight. Fifty years later, there are now nearly 60 Wild and Scenic rivers or river segments in Oregon. The designation recognizes and helps protect our state’s outstanding scenery, fisheries and recreational resources for now and the future. A life goal might be to hike them all, but for the last couple decades, I’ve had just one in mind: the Rogue.
In the late 1980s, I worked for a Eugene firm that landed the City of Gold Beach tourism marketing account. Immediately, I added a couple southwestern Oregon adventures to my bucket list. For the first, several years ago my wife, Sibyl, and I boarded a jet boat for a 104-mile round-trip wilderness whitewater excursion from Gold Beach to Paradise Lodge. That’s as far as a jet boat can go before running into Blossom Bar, the most infamous Class IV rapid on the Rogue.
Still on the list was a four-day, lodge-to-lodge hike on the wild portion of the Rogue. A “wild” river is one that is impoundment-free and generally accessible only by trail. The more than 100-year-old Rogue River Trail was built for pack mules that supplied miners. Perched on cliffs high above the river, it’s narrow with a lot of ups and downs. Though it’s not difficult, the length makes it demanding.
In October, to mark our 43rd wedding anniversary, Sibyl and I realized the dream, hiking the 40 miles from Graves Creek, near Merlin, to Foster Bar, near the community of Agness. It was a raft-supported hike, meaning our guide, Kara, hauled our gear, extra water and lunch in the raft, and checked in on us now and then. We hiked with day packs and stayed in rustic river lodges: Black Bar, Marial and Paradise. Nothing like a hot shower, a hearty dinner and clean sheets to prepare one for the next day’s 10- to 14-mile trek.
Along the trail, we viewed the iconic places of the Rogue: Whisky Creek, Battle Bar, author Zane Grey’s Cabin, historic Rogue River Ranch, Mule Creek Canyon and the famed Blossom Bar. Each has a unique history and charm. We saw plenty of wildlife and very few people – truly a wilderness adventure.
What’s on your bucket list?
For the Forest,
Halloween is a great time to tell scary stories. I have one to tell you, about millions upon millions of gray ghosts blackened by fire, ravaged by insects and disease, or dead from lack of water. These are Oregon’s “zombie trees.”
According to an analysis commissioned by OFRI, more than 350 million individual trees are standing dead in the 14 million acres of national forestland in Oregon. The bad news? The number of dead trees is expected to increase. This would provide more fuel for catastrophic wildfires such as last summer’s Eagle Creek and Chetco Bar fires that blanketed the Portland metro area and southern Oregon with unhealthy levels of smoke.
The story I’m about to tell you is about the frightening number of dead trees in our national forests. It is based on data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program that was collected in 2010 and 2013 across all forestland in Oregon.
This story could have a happy ending, but it may not. To put it into context, let’s start by discussing how much forestland in Oregon is owned by the Forest Service compared to other ownership classes.
About half of Oregon is forested, totaling nearly 30 million acres, giving rise to Oregon’s reputation as a green state. Forest ownership is dominated by the federal government, which manages about 60 percent of all forestland in the state. The National Forest System (NFS) is the largest class of forestland, with 48 percent of the total. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal lands comprise 12 percent. Private and Native American ownership account for 36 percent, with state and local government ownership at 4 percent.
The chart above shows the breakdown of the forestland into various ownership classes.
Forestland is classified as land having at least 10 percent cover of trees. Timberland refers to forestland productive enough to be economically managed for timber production and not legislatively or administratively reserved. Reserved land is withdrawn from timber harvest.
Most Oregon forestland is classified as timberland. Most of the low-productivity and reserved forestland is federally owned. As we shall see, not all forestland is created equal – ownership matters.
Number of zombie trees by ownership class
The scary part of our story starts when we compare living and dead trees per acre by ownership class. The chart below shows that National Forest System lands have 17 percent dead or zombie trees, compared to 11 percent for other public lands and 8 percent for private and Native American-owned lands. The NFS having twice as many zombie trees per acre as private lands may not seem that bad, but when you consider that there is a lot more National Forest land than any other class, it becomes quite terrifying, as we shall see.
In addition to different ratios of living to dead trees in their forests, the ownership classes of Oregon forests also vary greatly in the amount of timber harvest. The chart below shows annual Oregon timber harvest by ownership class from 1980 to 2015, using data collected by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
In 1985, annual timber harvest in Oregon was over 8 billion board feet, with more than half coming from federal forests. After the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and the subsequent Northwest Forest Plan, total Oregon timber harvest has dropped to about 4 billion board feet, with only about 15 percent coming from federal lands. The federal forests that represent about 60 percent of Oregon forestland now account for only about 15 percent of the state’s timber harvest. From the 1980s to present, private-land timber harvest has held fairly stable at about 3 billion board feet per year. Private and Native American forests, which represent 36 percent of Oregon’s forests, account for 76 percent of the timber harvest.
One simple conclusion that can be reached at this point is that forests that are more actively managed based on the number of timber harvests have fewer dead trees.
National Forest System trees per acre
The link between active management and tree mortality can be further examined by comparing zombie trees on NFS timberland to those on NFS reserved lands, as shown in the following chart. There is a 126 percent difference in dead trees per acre between NFS land open for management and land reserved from management.
National Forest System dead inventory
Remember when we started this story and talked about dead trees per acre? You may have thought that 17 percent zombie trees is not that different than 11 percent or 8 percent dead trees. The next chart may convince you otherwise.
This chart compares the total dead-tree volume on NFS lands to the live volume on other ownerships. The standing-dead volume on NFS lands is about half the live volume on all other federal lands. It is about 50 percent more than the live volume on all state and local forestlands, and it is nearly one-third of the total live volume on private and Native American forestlands. This is obviously more important than the difference in a few percentage points of zombie trees.
Annual growth vs. annual harvest, by ownership class
Another way to think about the level of active management is to compare annual growth with annual timber harvest. Net annual growth is the total or gross growth minus mortality. It is obvious to most folks that forests can only be sustained in the long term if annual timber harvest is less than or equal to net annual growth. If harvest is greater than growth over time, the standing forest volume will be diminished. This is typically called overcutting.
The left bar of the chart below shows net annual growth for various classes of timber ownership. The right bar shows average timber harvest for 2011 to 2013 for the same ownership classes. For every ownership, net annual growth exceeds harvest. However, on federal forestlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, timber harvest is only about 8 percent of growth.
Annual mortality vs. annual harvest
It is ironic that there appears to be an inverse relationship between annual mortality and annual timber harvest among Oregon’s forest ownership classes. Private and Native American forestlands, which have the highest timber harvest rate at 75 percent of total growth, have only 11 percent mortality. Federal forestlands have a timber harvest rate of about 9 percent of total growth, but have a mortality rate of about 29 percent.
Actively managed forests have far fewer zombie trees than forests that are less actively managed. Forests that are unmanaged quickly become overcrowded as trees grow and new trees seed in. Overcrowded forests have more dead trees and an increased volume of mortality. These dead trees also fuel any wildfires that occur. Overcrowded forests burn uncharacteristically hotter and have increased tree mortality as compared to managed forests.
Federal mortality vs. harvest
In discussing the difference in dead trees per acre on NFS reserved forestlands compared to timberlands, it may have appeared that we can do little to solve the zombie tree problem because it is mainly on reserved lands, which can’t be actively managed because they are set aside for non-timber purposes. The chart below shows that this is not the case.
This chart shows standing dead, annual mortality and annual harvest on federal lands and compares reserved to non-reserved forestlands. While dead trees per acre are much higher on reserved forestlands, the acreage of non-reserved is much larger. More than 70 percent of the standing dead timber on federal lands is on non-reserved lands open to harvest.
Conclusion: How to combat zombie trees
It’s fun to use the zombie image to discuss dead trees and mortality on National Forests. But this is a serious problem. There is an alarmingly high amount of mortality on National Forests that have low levels of timber harvest. I believe these are related issues, and the charts presented support this. Forests that have higher levels of timber harvest have lower levels of mortality.
The cure for zombie trees is active forest management. Forest policy does not always allow active management on federal lands. However, in the name of forest health, we should pursue active management strategies whenever and wherever possible.
We can combat the zombie tree apocalypse – with active forest management.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry
In early October, the OFRI board of directors hosted nearly 60 Oregon policymakers on a tour of Portland area mass timber buildings. Among the participants were State Treasurer Tobias Read, representatives from about 15 Oregon legislative offices, and key staff representing three members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, plus county commissioners, city planners and building code officials. Other tour attendees included reporters from the Capital Press and Portland Business Tribune.
We visited The Future of Tall, a new exhibit at the World Forestry Center, and heard from architects, developers and contractors about the virtues of advanced wood products and mass timber construction. The group toured four mass timber buildings: First Tech Federal Credit Union’s new Oregon headquarters under construction in Hillsboro (you can watch a video documenting the project here); the Leland James building being refurbished in Portland’s Slabtown neighborhood by Cairn Pacific and Capstone Partners; the 38 Davis building that’s home to Ankrom Moisan Architects; and Carbon12, the nearly-complete condo project developed by the Kaiser Group.
The enthusiasm for the topic among our tour hosts was palpable. One developer who had other obligations the day of the tour, Cairn Pacific’s Noel Johnson, even made the effort to deliver insights via video.
Ben Kaiser, the Carbon12 developer, told the crowd that his building is decades ahead of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating for sustainable construction. He explained that this is thanks to the carbon sequestration properties of Carbon12’s wood frame and the carbon emissions avoided by choosing wood over concrete and steel for the majority of its structural system. And by the way, it took Oregon timberlands just 6.1 minutes to grow the 24,411 cubic feet of wood used for the project.
LEVER Architecture’s Doug Sheets and Tom Cody of the development company project^ talked about how fire and seismic testing proved their Framework project, set to break ground later this year, is just as safe as any other high-rise structure. The project utilizes a unique post-tensioned wood rocking wall system designed to improve the building’s seismic resiliency and allow it to be re-occupied in short order after a major earthquake, unlike the vast majority of buildings.
The project architect for the new First Tech Federal Credit Union building, Scott Barton-Smith with the Portland architecture firm Hacker, spoke during the tour. He extolled wood’s renewability and carbon storage capabilities but added, “The best reason to use wood on a project like this is, it’s really beautiful. Every time I come out here, I feel like I really want to work in this building. It’s hard to imagine a single decision you would make about a material in a building that’s as impactful as using wood.”
Meanwhile Chris Evans, project executive on the job for general contractor Swinerton Builders, stated simply, “We’re all in” on wood construction.
Hearing developers, architects and contractors sing wood’s praises was gratifying. It was also, it seems, effective. One participant from the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability told me, “Thanks a ton for the great tour the other day. For me, it was a real mind-changer.”
Now that’s what I like to hear.
Director of Forest Products