New Tools for New Times
The stewardship contract is the backbone of the new approach in John Day. Restoration of federal forests is expensive and the revenue from logging typically goes back to the federal treasury. But under a stewardship contract, the Forest Service keeps the revenue from thinning of small-diameter trees and uses the money to pay for fuels reduction, prescribed burning and other restoration treatments.
“It was bigger than keeping the mill going; it was about keeping infrastructure in place and keeping people employed to keep the restoration going because we were doing the right thing on the land.”—Susan Jane Brown, Western Environmental Law Center.
Dave Hannibal, Base Manager for Grayback Forestry in John Day, has 80 employees working on forest restoration and fuels reduction.
Malheur National Forest officials awarded the ten-year stewardship project to Iron Triangle, a local logging and forestry services company. Iron Triangle completes the restoration work and sells the logs to Malheur Lumber Co. “This stewardship contract give our mill stability and predictability; it gives us hope for the future,” said Bruce Dacsauvage of Ochoco Lumber Company, parent company of Malheur Lumber Co.
Grounded in Science
Historically, forest management has been contentious, in part, because all sides claim to have science on their side. Rather than use science to prove who’s right, the Blue Mountain Forest Partners use it to identify common ground as a starting point for taking action. Collaborative members examined peer-reviewed literature and conferred with forest management experts to understand conditions on the Malheur National Forest.
Members of the Blue Mountain Forest Partners on a field trip to the Malheur National Forest. Collaborators spent time together in the woods, moving beyond old arguments to find common ground.
“It’s all grounded in science which is why, as an environmentalist and an environmental attorney who litigates regularly on timber sales against the forest service in federal court, I can get behind this.” Susan Jane Brown, Western Environmental Law Center.
In addition to peer-reviewed science, the collaborative partnered with academics and the Forest Service to evaluate outcomes from the group’s recommendations to the Malheur National Forest. “Because it is science-based, we are testing hypotheses and studying the outcomes. So we are actually learning from what we are doing,” Brown added.
Data Gathering Guides Future Projects
Monitoring offers the collaborative insights into the results from past restoration projects. The group also gathers data on forest conditions to help guide future projects. Rigorous data collection helped the group reach agreement on the removal of specific large, young, fir trees—a move that helped protect adjacent old growth ponderosa pines and provided a boost to the mill.
The economics of forest restoration are challenging because most of the trees that need to be removed are small, with limited commercial value. Adding a few larger trees can improve the economics but may not serve forest restoration. The Blue Mountain Forest Partners shared a common interest in maintaining large, old, “legacy trees” especially old ponderosa pines. By identifying and aging trees adjacent to large legacy pines they discovered how to protect the big, old, pines and provide economically-valuable larger trees to the sawmill. "We found a lot of our big, older trees on the forest with young 21 to 24-inch diameter grand fir and Douglas fir growing right next to them, putting those legacy pines at risk,” said Dave Hannibal, of Grayback Forestry.
Mike Billman of the Oregon Department of Forestry measures a Douglas fir tree next to a "legacy" ponderosa pine. Removing the fir protects the pine and provides the mill with a valuable log.
“The environmental community wanted to protect old trees, not necessarily just big trees and industry was looking for an avenue that would provide some larger trees. That allowed us to begin cutting some of the larger fir trees.”—Mark Webb, executive director Blue Mountain Forest Partners.
The Eastside Screens, a national forest management tool, prohibits cutting of trees larger than 21 inches in diameter. Malheur National Forest officials won approval for the removal of trees larger than 21 inches in diameter because they explained the ecological benefits clearly in an amendment to the Forest Plan for the Malheur National Forest.
Increasing the Pace and Scale of Forest Restoration
There is growing consensus about the need to restore enough federal forests to make a significant ecological impact. “Increasing the pace and scale” has become a land management mantra like "go big or go home.” Experts such as The Nature Conservancy estimate that Oregon and Washington forests contain over 9.5 million acres that need restorative work on the east side of the Cascade Mountains and in southern Oregon.
But restoring federal forests is expensive work, with costs rising to $1,500 per acre. Planning these projects is also costly, time-consuming and subject to litigation. Even for those projects that win approval, the Forest Service usually does not have the budget from Congress to complete the work that needs to be done.
in 2014, national forests in eastern Oregon had a backlog of 300,000 acres of small diameter thinning and 500,000 acres of prescribed burning, according to the us forest service.