Ready to talk about the future of Oregon’s forests?

Confusing road sign

Is anyone experiencing cognitive dissonance about Oregon’s forests? In other words, are you having one or more conflicting thoughts about how we use, manage and protect our forests for all the values we hold dear? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:

  • We’re standing on the threshold of the “wood century,” where we could use environmentally friendly, advanced wood products to build the structures in which we live, work and play – but we lack the raw material supply to make it happen.
  • Statewide, we have as much forest acreage as we had in the mid-20th century, but on our national forests more timber is dying and burning up than is being harvested.
  • The outdoor recreation industry is set to explode and create new economic opportunities in rural areas, but who enjoys recreating in smoke and wildfire?

Let me elaborate on these points, starting with mass timber. A new study published by Oregon Best estimates that mass timber manufacturing has the potential to create 2,000 to 6,100 direct jobs in Oregon, but “access to the raw material is uncertain and a heavily debated topic.” Generally, increased use of wood products would be a good thing, as they require less fossil fuel energy to manufacture – and, unlike other materials, wood stores carbon, removed from the atmosphere as CO2 during tree growth.

Data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory Analysis shows that the amount of forestland in Oregon has remained relatively constant since 1953. However, the FIA data also shows that on federal lands, only about 9 percent of the annual timber growth is harvested each year. The amount of timber that dies because of insects, disease or fire offsets annual growth by about 30 percent.

The outdoor recreation economy is gaining traction in Oregon and around the country. In Oregon alone, it generated $12.8 billion in consumer spending and supported 141,000 jobs in 2012. In response, the 2017 Oregon Legislature created a brand-new Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, set to begin Jan. 1.

Unfortunately, for those who love to hike, bike, camp, and fish or hunt, our treasured forest recreation destinations are being reshaped by massive fires and we’re getting choked by smoke.

According to a Sept. 23 Statesman Journal article, this summer’s Oregon wildfires burned an area the size of Rhode Island, but the real loss was to the “mountains and forests Oregonians traditionally pilgrimage to each summer and fall, including the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters.” In an Oregonian article, Oregon State University College of Forestry Professor John Bailey says Oregonians should get used to wildfire and smoke. Bailey says, “The fuel mosaic we have out there is unprecedented ... We’ve created forest types we’ve never had. Those acres are connected to each other in ways they never were, and they are burning in ways they’ve never burned before.” 

Cognitive dissonance is the tension that comes from holding two or more conflicting thoughts. Most Oregonians want timber for wood products, landscapes for recreation, and sustainable forests that provide clean air and water, but they also want less smoke and fewer fires – especially the catastrophic ones. 

With a statewide population 80 times larger than what it was when Oregon became a state, we need to end the dissonance and figure things out. Perhaps it’s time to have a constructive conversation about what we want our forests and landscapes to look like in the future.

To paraphrase the old saying, if we are not able to learn from history – and especially our mistakes – then we are doomed to repeat them. We are Oregonians. We can do better.

For the forest,

Paul Barnum
Executive Director


9755 SW Barnes Rd., Suite 210        
Portland, OR 97225        
Phone: 971-673-2944        
Fax: 971-673-2946

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