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Climate change calls for new forest practices

Guest Viewpoint By Roy Keene, published February 4, 2014, in The Register-Guard, Eugene, OR  –

 

Returning from visiting California’s parched forests, vineyards and orchards, I read the story headlined “Snow’s low but skiers go” in the Jan. 18 Register-Guard. Finally, a media comment on the local realities of climate change! Oregon’s second year of low rain and snowfall is looking like less of an anomaly and more of a norm.

 

The National Weather Service Drought Monitor rates Oregon’s drought as “severe” and California’s as “extreme.” Like California, we could end up comparatively rainless and without significant snowpack this winter, and perhaps longer. If this trend continues, more than just ski resorts will be strained. Oregon’s energy, agricultural and fisheries production will become water-limited, as will forest growth and resiliency.

 

By default or design, how we manage natural resources — especially the forests that are the source of our water — will change. In Oregon’s warming and drying climate, the need to reform how forests are logged becomes harder to deny. In this winter’s historically unique drought, the customary burning of logging slash has ignited and fueled wildfires in winter!

 

For 150 years many Oregonians have regarded timber as the most important public forest resource. Timber provides lumber, jobs and revenues. But if longer, more intense droughts continue, water will become more valuable than timber.

 

The water that flows out of the forests irrigates farms, generates power, spawns salmon and supports our culture. Public forests, far more intact than the heavily logged private forests, shelter and contribute a major share of this water.

 

Logging on our O&C forests, mandated to “regulate streamflow” as well as provide timber, has been debated for 50 years. During this period Bureau of Land Management managers sold an annual average of over 700 million board feet of timber from O&C lands. That’s 200 million feet more than the often quoted 500 million annual board feet called “sustainable” in the 1937 O&C Management Act.

 

While the O&C forests were being methodically overcut, the corporate-owned lands with which they are interspersed were completely logged over, creating a virtual checkerboard landscape. The critically important, still-forested reaches of many watersheds are now cloistered in the remnant O&C squares of this fragmented checkerboard.


Vital stream headwaters are typically logged over on industry lands within the checkerboard.

 

More logging and road building of any kind will further disturb and compact soils, disrupt hydrological functions and reduce downstream water flows. Increased logging doesn’t fairly consider the already degraded watersheds within the checkerboard forests. Nor have the proponents of increased O&C logging accounted for the economic effects on hydroelectric power, agricultural irrigation and domestic water production.

 

Have the scientists and environmental groups promoting more O&C logging considered the effects of dramatically less rain and snowpack? In light of these changes, might it not be more scientifically and environmentally prudent to keep public forest remnants intact?

 

What would happen if we gave our already overworked O&C forests a jubilee from further logging?

 

These forests, constituting 8 percent of Oregon’s forest lands, contribute a mere 4 percent to the annual timber harvest and about the same to most O&C county budgets.

 

The largest purchasers of BLM timber sales are companies that own vast forests where they supposedly sustain their own timber. Instead of creating more subsidized timber sales for the biggest mills, BLM managers could equitably develop more forest recreation, as mandated by the O&C Act, for the rest of us.

 

The unproven “need” to increase logging on public lands is largely a political ploy. If our leaders honestly sought to bolster domestic timber supplies, jobs and revenues, they’d address massive and untaxed raw log and chip exports.

 

Oregon’s politicians, dodging log exports and fair taxes, are also avoiding intelligent dialogues on climate change. How unfortunate: We need a timely discourse in which energy and economic well-being are defined by water from the forests, not just biomass or timber.

 

Oregon, with one of the fastest growing economies in the nation, is adding jobs and revenues independent of increased logging on public lands. Our economy can continue growing without more O&C timber, but not without adequate water supplies.

 

To his credit, California’s governor is engaging his state in discussions and actions that address shrinking snowpack and water flows. Within these dialogues, both private and public forest management are being reassessed in terms of water outputs, not just timber.

 

Shrinking snowpack and water flows from the forests will seriously affect our environment, economy and quality of life. Will Oregon’s timber-dominated political leadership hold us in denial, or will they lead us forward?

 

Roy Keene of Eugene has worked in Oregon for 40 years as a forest consultant and conservationist.

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