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Picking up the pace on forest restoration
Ochoco National Forest personnel hope to accelerate thinning and other efforts to prevent wildfires, insect infestation, and disease
Multiple entities including the U.S. Forest Service, hope to accelerate forest restoration efforts on Ochoco National Forest.
March 21, 2013
For the past few years, local leaders and federal lawmakers have regularly emphasized a need to open forests to more timber harvest and active management.
For the most part, the barrage of messages had seemingly fallen on deaf ears as the forest stands continued to grow more-crowded and fall victim to wildfires, disease, and insect infestation. At the same time, Crook County and other timber-dependent communities watched a valuable natural resource go to waste and jobs disappear.
However, new plans have emerged that could change the situation for the better.
The U.S. Forest Service has unveiled a plan that will accelerate forest restoration activities on several of Oregon’s forestlands including the Ochoco National Forest.
Kate Klein, Forest Supervisor, said she is now developing a plan to increase the pace of restoration on the Ochoco National Forest. She noted that support for faster restoration includes environmental organizations and timber producers as well as government officials at the local, state, and federal level.
“There are less large, old trees, more densely-forested landscapes of small trees, and denser forests with multiple layers,” Klein said, “which makes more of our landscapes highly susceptible to stand replacement, wildfire, and insect and disease outbreaks of greater severity than would have occurred historically.”
Klein said that restoring forests to desired conditions may include thinning tree stands, removing merchantable timber, and use of prescribed fire. She further emphasized a need to act quickly.
“The time is now to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration,” she said. “Work is being done on the national forests in Oregon, however not quickly enough or on large enough landscapes to significantly reduce the risks of high severity wildfire or insect and disease epidemics.”
Klein also cited some economic benefits to accelerated forest restoration, noting that such activities could lead to some local job growth. John Shelk, managing director of Ochoco Lumber Company, agreed the projects could help, but only if the federal government can fund them. Because of sequestration cuts and what could follow from that, he has doubts that they will continue to fund projects into the future.
Shelk therefore feels the benefit to the timber industry relies on how much usable timber they can harvest from the restoration projects.
“Spoken simply, there has to be commercial saw timber coming from these projects,” he said.
Klein is still evaluating the best way to increase the pace of restoration on the Ochoco, so details have not emerged. She did however say that thinning efforts will likely include merchantable timber, along with smaller non-commercial tree removal. Per national forest master plan guidelines, no trees larger than 21 inches in diameter will be removed during the thinning process.
As Klein develops a restoration strategy, she noted that local leaders have already begun taking steps toward that end.
“The formation of the Ochoco Forest Collaborative Group, in spring 2012, under the leadership of (Prineville) Mayor Betty Roppe and (Crook County) Commissioner Ken Fahlgren will help tremendously,” she said.
The collaborative includes a group of about 35 representatives from local government, environmental groups, the timber industry, and more. They are trying to manage a 25,000-acre portion of forestland on the Ochoco in such a way that it increases timber harvests while satisfying the environmental concerns raised by conservation groups in order to avoid appeals.
The collaborative project is not expected nor intended to restore the local timber industry to its heyday and reopen sawmills, but Fahlgren hopes that it will establish a blueprint that could lead to more forest-related jobs.
“What it is, is a model of what we think a lot bigger could look like,” Fahlgren said. He explained that they are developing a prescription for treatment on a small, particular portion of forest that they could apply on a larger scale.
“If it’s a north-facing slope and it’s at this elevation, and it’s primarily Douglas fir and you have old-growth pine trees, what do you do?” he offered as an example. “If you can agree on this prescription for this property, then you can probably agree on the other 100,000 acres you want to do next year.”
The forest collaboratives were enabled by the Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth and Jobs Act, a piece of legislation that U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) developed in 2009 with help from timber executives and environmental leaders.
While the Ochoco Collaborative has some momentum, with the group now navigating the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process on its selected forestland, they still face potential challenges.
“There is still one (representative) who doesn’t work well with the other environmental people,” Fahlgren said. He said that the person in question has missed some meetings and represents a group that has blocked timber projects in the past.
Nevertheless, he feels the process has gone well, and believes that the timber situation in Crook County is moving in the right direction.
“I feel pretty good about it,” he said.