Too Many Trees, Too Few Mills: An Overview of PNW Interior Family Forests


Mike Cloughesy


Mike Cloughesy

By Mike Cloughesy
Originally published in Northwest Woodlands, Summer 2013


Family forests in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Interior are a very important resource, offering many benefits but also many challenges.

In a forested region dominated by federal forests in isolated mountainous settings, family forests are generally lower in elevation, mixed with ranch lands, and closer to civilization. Family forests provide important habitat diversity, but often are adjacent to or near federal lands, which can put them at risk to fire and insect infestations.

PNW Interior Forest Types

PNW Interior forestlands are a mosaic of forest types. The first step to understanding the issues surrounding these forests is to understand the types. For a full discussion of these forest types, see Understanding Eastside Forests, published by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (2006). Download a copy.

  • Ponderosa pine is the archetypical PNW Interior tree species and forest type. A true ponderosa pine forest is one where ponderosa pine regenerates naturally and other tree species don’t. Ponderosa pine is the driest and lowest-elevation forest type. Drier conditions below this type the forest gives way to juniper woodland and shrub/grassland.Historically, these forests had a fire-return interval of 5 to 20 years and were very open, dominated by a few widely spaced large trees and patches of natural regeneration. Fires were generally low intensity, clearing brush and small trees, but leaving the large pines.

 A healthy, east-side ponderosa pine forest historically supported fewer and larger trees per acre.



  • Lodgepole pine is the dominant tree in frost-dominated, mid- to high-elevation sites. Lodgepole pine is much more frost tolerant than ponderosa or other interior conifers. Lodgepole forests have a fire return interval of about 75 to 100 years, and fires are usually high-intensity stand-replacement fires, killing most of the trees and other vegetation. Following the fires, lodgepole seeds densely, forming fully stocked, pure stands of lodgepole pine. These stands grow well when young, but quickly become overcrowded, eventually stagnating until growth stops, and trees become weak and prone to mountain pine beetle invasion. This creates a perfect opportunity for a stand-replacement fire, and the cycle starts again. In the absence of fire for a few centuries, shade-tolerant conifers such as grand fir, sub-alpine fir, and mountain hemlock can become established in the understory of lodgepole pine stands, creating a two-story stand.
  • Mixed-conifer forest types are generally found in the elevation/rainfall zone immediately above ponderosa pine. These types range from warm-dry at the lower elevations to cool-moist at higher elevation. Fire return intervals historically were from 20 to 100 years as the type grades from warm to cool. Historic fire intensity ranged from light/moderate in warm mixed-conifer zones to moderate/high in cool mixed-conifer zones. Fires are often patchy in mixed-conifer forests.
  • The warm mixed-conifer forest type includes Douglas-fir, grand fir, incense-cedar, and western larch as regenerating species, in addition to ponderosa and lodgepole pine. Site productivity is higher here than on the ponderosa pine type.
  • The cool mixed-conifer forest type adds subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce, and in some areas western white pine, to the warm mixed-conifer species array. Ponderosa pine is less common in the cool mixed-conifer type, while lodgepole pine and larch are more common here than in the warm mixed-conifer type.


Forest Ownership Breakdown 

PNW Interior Forest Ownership (thousand acres)


Family & Tribal

Large Private


Other Public


Eastern Washington






Eastern Oregon
























% of Total






Source: Forest Resources of the United States, 2007. USFS GTR-WO-78


The federal government is by far the largest player in PNW Interior forestry. The table above shows that the federal government manages more than 70 percent of the region’s forest. Private forests are a smaller factor, constituting about 24 percent of the region’s forests. The combined group of family forest and tribal owners manages about 15 percent of the forest, with most of this in family ownership.

Family forests are generally lower in elevation and closer to town than federal forests, and dominated by ponderosa pine and warm mixed-conifer forest types. These family forests are also often part of ranching operations that include range and pasturelands as well as forests.

One of the overriding issues facing family forest owners in the PNW Interior is adjacency with federal forests. Federal forests in the PNW Interior tend to be overstocked, with a higher risk of crown fire, bark beetle problems, and a need for active management. Forests like these don’t make good neighbors; wildfires and forest pests don’t recognize boundaries. Family forests can’t be considered healthy unless the neighboring federal forests are healthy.

Dying forest west of Mt. Bachelor

Mortality in this stand of ponderosa pine is due to both root rot and bark beetle. It is also susceptible to sever, stand-replacement fire due to heavy fuel load of dead trees.


Need for Forest Restoration

Many PNW Interior forests can be considered to be “out of whack.” Due to past logging practices and fire exclusion, many forests have 2,000-plus stems per acre when they should have 200 or less. The historic fire frequencies of 10 to 50 years for ponderosa pine and warm mixed-conifer stands kept the forests from being overstocked and allowed the more fire-resistant but less shade-tolerant ponderosa pines to dominate. One hundred years of management focused on excluding fire, as well as logging practices favoring harvesting large pines, Douglas-firs, and larches and leaving smaller trees and more shade-tolerant species such as grand fir, has converted many open, fire-resilient stands of ponderosa pine and western larch to overcrowded, multi-storied, multi-species stands that are prone to crown fires rather than the historic surface fires.

The key to restoring these forests is active management that includes thinning trees in all size classes, mowing brush, and in some cases, prescribed burning. Forest scientists, foresters, and collaboratives working on federal lands in the PNW Interior region are focusing their energy on forest restoration projects that reduce fuels, improve forest health, and provide saw logs for local mills. Many family forest owners are also actively involved in forest restoration.

Assistance for Family Forest Owners

   As part of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Congress authorized the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans at the county and sub-county level. These plans identify necessary fuels-reduction work on public and private land, and make technical and financial assistance available to family forest owners. Areas adjacent to federal lands are often given higher priority due to their higher risk of wildfire. Forestry assistance programs funded through the Farm Bill, such as EQIP, are also available for family forest owners and administered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Forests Products Mill Infrastructure 

PNW Interior Forest Products Mills


Circa 1980

Circa 1990

Circa 2000

Circa 2010

Eastern Washington





Eastern Oregon




















Source: Forest Industry Data Collection System, University of Montana, and Washington Department of Natural Resources


One of the keys to active forest management is a thriving infrastructure for forest products and logging. Unlike many areas of the inland west, the PNW Interior milling and logging infrastructure is still moderately vibrant, though declining.

The table above documents the declining mill infrastructure in the PNW Interior. The data includes sawmills, plywood and veneer mills, and pulp and board mills. The total number of mills in the region has decreased 73 percent from 1980 to 2010, reflecting a smaller reduction in milling capacity; the most competitive remaining mills have consolidated. The mill loss is primarily due to reduced timber harvest on federal lands in the past 30 years. There has been a similar decline in logging infrastructure over that time, as many loggers and truckers reduced staff or went out of business; this was heightened in the recent recession.

Forest restoration on public and private lands requires a good infrastructure for forest products and logging. Family forest owners need mills to market products, but don’t produce enough to supply mills and loggers on their own. Maintaining remaining infrastructure is dependent on increasing harvest on federal lands.

There is also a mismatch between restoration products and the needs of existing mills. Restoration projects produce mostly small-diameter wood, with some small to medium saw logs. Most existing forest products mills are set up for medium saw logs. Saw log and lumber prices are recovering nicely after the recession, but biomass and residual prices are still very low. Loss of pulp and paper capacity in the region has lowered residual prices and hurt sawmills’ profitability.

Regional biomass and small-wood infrastructure has been growing in an attempt to make use of the small-diameter material that is being harvested in forest restoration projects. Existing mills have added new processes and markets, and new mills have been created.

Malheur Lumber in John Day, Oregon, is an example of a traditional mill that has adapted to a changing log supply. A traditional pine sawmill that produces high-quality pine lumber from trees 14-inches plus in diameter at the small end, Malheur found when it began purchasing forest restoration sales under Forest Stewardship contracts that many logs were too small or the wrong species for its operation. To use the smaller-diameter wood, Malheur added a compressed wood-pellet mill and brick mill, plus a whole-log shaver. It has also been very active in helping develop a local biomass thermal market, converting school and public buildings to pellet boilers for space heat.

The Integrated Biomass Energy Campus in Enterprise, Oregon, is an example of a new entity that was designed to use materials from restoration projects as well as timber sales and stewardship contracts. The campus involves a sort yard, a post-and-pole plant, a packaged firewood operation, a densified firelog mill, a biomass gasifier, and combined heat and power, and also markets saw logs to local mills and hog fuel to local users. The project benefited from a public-private partnership, with groundwork laid by a nonprofit, Wallowa Resources, which catalyzed private sector investment from Integrated Biomass Resources, LLC.


Active forest management provides multiple benefits from the various forest types found on PNW Interior family forests. However, it often requires working with unusual partners. PNW Interior forests require active management to help them develop forest health and fire resiliency. Actively managing the region’s family forests is closely tied to a diminishing forest products infrastructure and overstocked federal forests. Family forests need the remaining mills to stay open to provide markets for the logs produced through active management, but do not have enough timber supply to keep them open. The mills require the logs coming from federal lands, and the ability to adapt to a changing resource, in order to stay open.

Federal forestry in the PNW Interior is at a pivotal point with many conservation, industrial and local government interests working collaboratively to increase the scale of active management on federal forests. Success in this work will improve forest health, keep mills open and better position family forests in this region to succeed.

Mike Cloughesy is Director of Forestry for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute in Portland, Ore. He is also an affiliate faculty member of the OSU College of Forestry, where he served in the Forestry Extension program for 16 years. Mike can be reached at [email protected].


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

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