What happens if a timber harvest is a little more like a fire or windstorm that leaves patches of trees behind? And what happens if you don’t replant trees after logging? That’s what the Bureau of Land Management is proposing for a series of experimental timber sales in Southern Oregon. Amelia Templeton reports.
Climb into the hills east of Roseburg Oregon, and you’ll find patches of old growth forest—and a lot of old clear-cuts.
Abe Wheeler is a forester with the Bureau of Land Management. He says this steep slope was logged and replanted in the 1990s. It should look like a Christmas tree farm now, with lots of little Doug firs. But instead, he points out dozens of species of grasses and shrubs that have taken over.
Wheeler: “You’ve got, uh, bulrush, salal, live oak, bracken fern. There’s some bitter cherry that’s growing in here and black-capped raspberries. “
Wheeler says these sun loving, leafy species attract elk, birds, and insects.
Wheeler: “If you’re looking for butterfly habitat, then we have it here. “
This ecosystem of smaller plants that thrive when trees aren’t dominant is called early-seral habitat. For centuries, it’s been created by fires and windstorms. But scientists say it’s getting harder to find healthy early-seral habitat in the Northwest. Decades fighting fires and growing trees for money have made it rare. Norm Johnson is a forestry professor with Oregon State University.
Johnson: “This particular environment is particularly scarce. In fact, we claim that it’s the scarcest successional stage in the Cascades. “
After a natural forest disturbance, shrubs and grasses can dominate for 30 years or more before trees take over again. But when land is managed for commercial timber production, the goal is to get trees up above the grasses in just six years.
Johnson: “If you want to grow trees rapidly and you want to have a 35- or 40-year rotation, well you can’t wait.”
Johnson is helping the Bureau of Land Management design timber sales that will create early-seral habitat. And some profit too.
In the hills west of Roseburg, Abe Wheeler, the BLM forester, follows a trail into the woods. This stand is about 110 years old. It grew after a fire. Wheeler is helping draw up plans for a timber sale that will mimic a big fire. Patches of the forest will be left alone.
Wheeler: “This is a green flag line. The double flag marks the corner. Everything that way is retained. Everything that way is in the harvested area. “
Wheeler’s green flags protect a grove of ancient trees. And tiny woodland marsh. He says about 60 percent of the stand will be logged. The patches that are left behind will preserve pockets of biodiversity. And help kick-start that early-seral habitat after logging. The BLM will plant a few new trees to hedge its bets. But it wants the site to regrow naturally.
Steve Lydic is a Field Manager with the BLM’s Roseburg District. He says the project is an attempt to strike a balance.
Lydic: "You know, realistically what we're doing is trying to find, sort of that sweet spot between maximizing timber and maximizing habitat value."
Not everyone is convinced. Doug Heiken is with the conservation group Oregon Wild. For him, this experimental timber sale… looks a little too much like clear-cutting old growth.
Heiken: “We’re talking about logging mature forests, which are still a rare and beautiful thing. So it’s hard to see the ecological value in that.”
Heiken thinks there are better ways to re-create early-seral habitat. Like, letting some wilderness fires burn. And cutting younger stands. And he’s worried about the precedent this pilot project could set.
Heiken: “What we’re likely to see is the pilot goes through, and then BLM thinks, oh, here’s a great idea, let’s do it 50 times, all across the landscape.”
The Bureau of Land Management is preparing an environmental assessment for the Timber Pilot in Roseburg. It should be available in March.