Restoration Renaissance A New Paradigm in John Day

Text and photographs by Marcus Kauffman. Videos by Dan Bihn.

"things are working here"

The remote rural community of John Day, Oregon, is enjoying a restoration renaissance. The only mill left in the county, Malheur Lumber Co., is humming along with 104 employees working extended hours processing a steady supply of logs from federal forest restoration projects. Restoration work has become an economic engine for the community: Careful thinning of smaller trees increases forest resilience while providing additional material for local industry. And the results are real: Local school enrollment has grown from 570 to 615 students, the highest it’s been in fifteen years. Unemployment has fallen from a high of 14 percent in 2012 to 8.9 percent in 2015. Community leaders hope that more jobs will give the younger generation a reason to stay in, or come back to, the community.

"The money is coming back to the county because things are working here. Housing sales are at an all-time high. There’s more ‘help wanted’ signs in town than I’ve seen in a long time. Those are certainly big wins for the community."—Dave Hannibal, Grayback Forestry.

Back from the Brink

The turnaround in John Day is remarkable considering how the town’s fortunes teetered on the edge of the abyss in August 2012. The town’s remaining lumber mill, Malheur Lumber Co., announced plans to close, a potentially devastating blow to the community. But a fledgling group of diverse collaborators was committed to not letting that happen.

The Corner Cup Coffee House, John Day, Oregon.

Members of the Blue Mountain Forest Partners—a federal forest collaborative that includes representatives from the timber industry, environmental organizations, local residents and public agencies—took action because they understood how the mill and forest restoration depend on each other. Without a market to sell the trees removed as part of restoration efforts, this work would decline sharply—threatening the health of the forest ecosystem. The value of commercial timber removal offsets the high costs of forest restoration. And without agreements mapping out restoration over a large area, the mill could not count on a stable supply of logs. The collaborators knew that if the mill was shuttered, restoration of the Malheur National Forest would slow to a crawl.

“The message was ‘the mill is running out of logs and is going to close in the next sixty days’. It was very shocking news. My stomach hit rock bottom. But I knew that we could not allow that to happen.”—Susan Jane Brown, attorney with Western Environmental Law Center.

The Plan: Bigger Projects, a Longer Commitment

Working with state and federal leaders, the collaborators quickly hatched a plan to keep the mill going with logs thinned from Malheur National Forest. The mill needed a steady supply of logs over a longer period of time. But the Forest Service’s ability to commit to longer-term projects hinges on having staff to complete the required environmental planning. With funds from USFS regional office, Malheur National Forest officials were able to offer a ten-year stewardship contract that would accelerate restoration and provide the mill with sufficient logs.

"We got together to determine how the ecological needs of the forest could provide a sustainable supply of material to the mill.”—Steve Beverlin, Malheur National Forest Supervisor.
Salvaged logs decked at Malheur Lumber Co. in John Day. When the mill announced plans to close in 2012, a diverse group of stakeholders leaped into action.

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.
Logs decked at Malheur Lumber in John Day, Oregon. In addition to lumber the facility uses small-diameter timber to manufacture wood pellets, fuelwood bricks and animal bedding.

But in John Day, the increase in pace and scale of forest restoration is working—for everyone. Landscape-scale treatments are increasing ecological resilience over project areas of up to 50,000 acres. The scope and scale of the treatments also offers land managers additional flexibility. For example, land managers can leave more trees to support wildlife in one area because they understand that adjacent areas will have an economical by-product that will pay its way out of the woods.

The profit motive now serves an evolving ethic of forest and community stewardship.

In John Day and on many national forests, the removal of commercial products undergirds forest restoration activities—the profit motive now serves an evolving ethic of forest and community stewardship. In light of the budget challenges facing our national forests, we must rethink old assumptions that pit healthy forests, mills and communities against one another. The fortunes of all three are inextricably tied together—and rely on a better understanding of what must be done to sustain them all.

Majestic ponderosa pines on the Malheur National Forest.

Marcus Kauffman is the Biomass Resource Specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, marcus.kauffman@oregon.gov. Dan Bihn is an engineer/storyteller, dan@danbihn.com. Funding provided by US Forest Service and Oregon Statewide Wood Energy Team.

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Words and images by Marcus Kauffman, Oregon Dept. of Forestry. Videos by Dan Bihn.

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