By late August, the US Forest Service had exhausted its firefighting budget for the year. A billion dollars spent, and there were still about 50 large, uncontained fires burning nationwide.
So the Forest Service transferred $600 million from other purposes – such as recreation and timber management – to fund firefighting for the rest of the season. They didn’t have much choice, really; in many cases homes and communities were at stake.
But let’s remember a few things:
- This is the sixth time in the past 12 years this has happened.
- Fire risks in our national forests continue to escalate.
- Over the past few years there’s been a decrease in funding for thinning and fuel reduction projects – the very projects that would help prevent big, expensive fires in the first place.
Nationwide, the USFS did preventative work on 1.8 million acres in 2012. Less is happening this year. And next year’s budget provides funds for still fewer acres – down to 685,000 nationwide. In Oregon alone, there are millions of acres of national forest in need of restoration.
All this was reported in a recent Associated Press news story, and anyone who read it certainly must have had the same thought: What are we doing wrong?
Certainly, the Forest Service understands the irony. And so do many of our political leaders in Oregon.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, for instance, has compared this to problems in health care. He said it’s like not paying a relatively small amount to control someone’s high blood pressure, and then paying tens of thousands of dollars to treat that person in the hospital after he or she suffers a stroke.
In Oregon, we’ve had some success using collaborative groups to plan forest restoration projects that can help prevent expensive fires, with interests as diverse as environmentalists and mill owners working together. A Forest Service study released this year shows these projects do reduce costs.
Restoration of National Forest lands is something that can be resolved; not easily, however. The US Forest Service cannot do it alone, as has been demonstrated over the last two decades.
This is a problem of federal policy and federal funding. It’s going to play out in Washington, D.C. – in the Obama administration, in Congress and high up the food chain in the Agriculture Department.
OFRI’s 2012 Forest Report has as its No. 1 recommendation: “Reassess and reshape policies for Oregon’s federal forests.” It points out that “This is a tall order … not achieved with a single ‘summit’ or with a 90-day planning effort … A sustained bipartisan effort is needed.”
As our elected officials address forest policy, we need to focus on substance – avoiding the rhetorical and supporting sensible outcomes as our congressional delegation works through this conundrum.
OFRI board member
Photo: A military C-130 drops a load of fire retardant on a wildfire near Pine, Colo., on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.
Those visiting The Oregon Garden usually stroll and meander among the trees and plants. Life seems to move at a slower pace there, as visitors often take the time to watch the plants grow and the birds fly by. But on a Thursday afternoon two weeks ago, the Mother Nature Show suddenly changed channels – to watching black clouds unleash a powerful thunderstorm. Visitors and staff retreated to The Oregon Garden Resort’s Garden View Restaurant to watch as more than two inches of rain fell amid lightning flashes. Soon everyone began to note that there was no “counting” time between the thunder boom and the flash of lightning. Then the powerful show suddenly lit up the sky as an “explosion” occurred.
A 30-foot giant sequoia located in the conifer garden was struck by a lightning bolt. It split exactly down the middle; the top and branches lay conveniently in a pile at the base of the tree. Nearby, flower displays and pathways were barely touched or disturbed.
The storm caused local street flooding and widespread power outages. It also brought 15 minutes of fame to The Oregon Garden and employee Matt Stageman. Matt was on hand to witness the lightning strike, and took action to make sure the area was safe for returning visitors. The arriving media also interviewed him the next day. Temporary signage and a viewing area were erected the next day, with the damaged sequoia becoming the hottest stop on the garden tour. The Oregon Garden intends to leave the giant sequoia snag, as long as safety allows.
According to the National Weather Service, an average of 25 million lightning strikes are detected each year in the United States. This strike happened to be close to home. No one knows why lightning chose this tree; it was not the tallest or the biggest tree in the area. The Douglas-firs of the Rediscovery Forest sit taller, and on top of the hill – and they were left untouched. The heritage Oregon white oak sat undisturbed, as it has for over 400 years. The conifer garden has 531 unique conifer trees, but this was the chosen one.
Giant sequoias occur naturally only in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. The species is named after Sequoyah (1767–1843), the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary. This chosen giant sequoia was already a special tree to one family, which years ago dedicated it as a memorial tree for their father. The family was notified the next day, and they support leaving the tree as is – to see what comes next in this tree’s story.
From the woods,
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
% 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.
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
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]
Despite the size and severity of some wildfires in Oregon, it’s surprising how quickly the thought of the disasters fade from the general public. Some fires live in America’s collective memories; Yellowstone, and likely the current Yosemite fires. But the memories of others don’t stick.
Over the Labor Day weekend, I went camping with family and friends near the Santiam pass. Great weather, great fun, nothing to complain about (perhaps the mediocre fishing). We took a trip to Scout Lake, a popular swimming lake in the region, and a lake that was overtaken by the B&B fire in 2003. I hiked around the crowded side of the lake, and on around the deserted rim. Two things I noticed.
The first was that a decade later, it still looks very similar to the first time I walked the burned area. Burned trees and silver stems still stand, with a few more on the ground. Low vegetation has filled in, but you’ll find little in the way of new tree growth.
The other thing I noticed were the comments from strangers, as well as friends. “What happened here?” “When are the trees going to grow back?” “There was a forest fire here like 20 years ago.” “Why haven’t they cut these dead trees down for wood?” “Was this a big fire?” ”There was a forest fire here just a couple years ago.”
The fire damage is plain to see, but the details get lost. If you’re in the area, or driving from Salem to Bend, tune your radio to the B&B low-power station (530 am), or stop off at one of the OFRI-developed interpretive kiosks and remind yourself just what happened to that landscape 10 years back.