Finding Compromise In Jobs vs. Environment Premise is the Wrong Goal
Even allowing clearcuts in selective "variable retention harvest" patches intended to mimic the natural variability of a fire-prone habitat mosaic is a risk and a danger, especially since global climate change has thrown natural variability out the window.
Located in the BLM's Roseburg District, the Buck Rising timber sale is a good example of clearcutting draped under the "variable retention harvest" euphemism (photo by Chandra LeGue).
By Pablo Martos
Senator Ron Wyden has released a new plan for management of Oregon and California Railroad trust lands, a plan I think is intended to replace, update, or supersede the Northwest Forest Plan that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994 for O&C lands. While I'm glad new science is being brought to bear on an old problem, I think the approach is wrong. I disagree with it's broader objectives - and thus with some of the specific things it is attempting to address.
Wyden's plan relies on the recent work of two well-regarded scientists, Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin, who helped craft the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan in the first place. The broad objective is to create a plan whereby these lands can be sustainably logged forever without dramatically sacrificing ecological protections. This is not an unworthy goal. I think we should approach all our resources this way, starting with the question "if we have to use this, how do we make sure we're not using it faster than it replenishes on its own?"
But a consistent problem with that idea is those with a profit-driven interest take an optimistic view of what's sustainable. Fisheries get over-harvested because a certain fishery will have a few good years due to factors no one has any control over, so everyone upwardly revises their idea of what's sustainable. Then our ability to monitor the decline in population lags a few years, so the population crashes in response to the increased harvest and it takes many, many years to recover. The same can happen with forests if managers assume what's sustainable now will continue to be so five years down the line.
The plan has the support of the Pacific Rivers Council and the Wild Salmon Center, solid natural resources protection groups, and it relies on good science, with adaptive management and rigorous scientific review built in. Johnson and Franklin are certainly more experienced ecologists than myself, and I've had the opportunity to read a couple of Johnson's academic papers, which I admired for their well-balanced emphasis on both the social and environmental issues raised by forest management. But I think the focus of Wyden's approach to the social matters is misplaced.
I'm always leery of any reduction in natural resource protections. The Sierra Club, Environment Oregon, and Oregon Wild (which I must disclose I have the pleasure of volunteering for) all disagree with the O&C plan. Narrowing the stream buffers that protect the riparian habitats salmon and so many other species depend on, even if only in specially-designated areas, is a worrisome idea. Limiting the ability of activist groups to file lawsuits against logging actions is even more worrisome. And allowing clearcuts, even in selective "variable retention harvesting" patches intended to mimic the natural variability of a fire-prone habitat mosaic, is not necessarily a great idea when global climate change has thrown natural variability out the window.
Wildfires now regularly reach intensities never seen before. As annual snowpack decreases due to changes in global climate, there's less spring melt to feed streams and wet forests, so forests that haven't been logged in some time get more dry and more prone to fire.
But selective thinning for fuel load reduction is different than trying to create a perpetual, sustainable harvest regime based on what we know of past conditions, in an era when past conditions don't mean anything. We don't know what the wildfire regime is going to look like in five years, and we don't know just how habitats and species will change and migrate over the next decade, independent of all our best efforts to manage and control.
There's an argument to be made we should use logging to artificially force forests to match past natural conditions, but the system is not stable, so stable harvest is not really going to be possible. Fires have been getting bigger and more out of control every year, and we need to protect what we've got, not continue to harvest based on what the fire regime was like in the past.
It's the wrong kind of sustainability for our present situation. Right now, given climate change, conservation is a higher priority than smarter resource extraction for (mostly) private profit. Adaptive management of lands conserved for their own sake is the way to go, and harvest should be allowed to happen as part of that management, as opposed to being the main goal of that management. We have to consider whether our public natural resources should even be allowed to be extracted for private profit. The answer everyone comes to these days is yes - but should it be?
The lean towards increased logging comes from the idea logging creates jobs, but that idea is outdated and no longer accurate. In Lincoln County, timber harvest more than doubled from 2009 to 2012, but employment went down. In Lane County, there was a 75% increase in harvest over the same period, but a 14% decrease in wood products manufacturing jobs.
So why the disconnect? Logging in Oregon is a truly extractive industry, and one-third of all trees logged from Oregon forests are exported as logs or as chips for use elsewhere.
Logs are extracted from our public lands and shipped to Asian markets, the processing and manufacturing jobs get extracted by increased mechanization and shipping of raw materials overseas to support manufacturing jobs in places where labor is cheaper and tax breaks are higher, and the profits are extracted by owners.
The reality is logging doesn't create jobs like it used to, doesn't benefit Oregon's economy like it used to, and we waste obscene amounts of money subsidizing the practice.
In fact, there's reason to believe the reduction in forest harvesting was not such a bad thing. Want to know what happened from 1988 to 1996, when harvests in the Pacific Northwest fell most precipitously? In a document titled The Sky Did NOT Fall: The Pacific Northwest's Response to Logging Reductions, ECONorthwest reports while harvests fell 86% on federal lands and 47% overall in that time, jobs in the lumber-and-wood-products industry fell 22%. But total employment, reflecting a much larger population than just the lumber-and-wood-products subset, increased 27%.
ECONorthwest proposed two main causes for this, with many contributing factors:
- Cause One - Logging's importance to the economy had already diminished a good deal. This is because of the timber industry cutting jobs and wages in union-busting tactics in the 1980s, before the Northwest Forest Plan was even in place. By 1990, the timber industry was only 3.1% of the jobs in the region, and decades of over-harvesting had resulted in predictions there would be a crash in timber production in the 1990s anyway. It wasn't all about the spotted owl, people.
- Cause Two - Unlogged forests became more important to the economy, and this here's the not-so-obvious part. Do you really think Intel or Nike would want to be in Oregon if their headquarters were surrounded by clearcut wastelands and brown rivers that couldn't support any form of recreation, much less salmon? If their employees didn't want to be here, they wouldn't be here. Logging is a messy business that leaves a lot of clean-up and restoration work for others to take care of, it damages the land and the water and the species that rely on a healthy wild ecology, and the fact is, people want to live near beautiful forests. Other jobs came and more than replaced those lost.
I appreciate that rural counties which came to rely on the tax income from the logging industry, and later, on compensatory payments from the federal government to offset the economic damage of forced reductions in logging, are hurting. Services are being cut, county governments are unable to govern, and people in the government are losing their jobs. Law enforcement has been devastated by the lack of funds, and people are suffering.
But another point to note is many of these counties have dramatically lower property taxes than the rest of the state, rates they were able to maintain because they received funds through logging, and the populations of these counties continue to vote against raising the property taxes.
As this recent Jeff Mapes article in The Oregonian notes:
Voters in Lane and other timber-dependent counties have been resistant to raising property taxes in part because they're accustomed to the feds picking up most of the cost of county services and giving them low tax rates. Josephine County residents pay 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for county operations, the lowest rate in the state. Curry County follows just behind at 60 cents and Lane County's rate is $1.28, the seventh lowest. In comparison, Multnomah County's rate is $4.34.
There are better ways to stimulate local economies than logging, even if that's been the traditional driver. A recent study found National Wildlife Refuges are economic engines all their own, and pumped $2.4 billion into the economy, supported more than 35,000 jobs and produced $792.7 million in job income for the people who engage in, facilitate, and manufacture products that allow outdoor recreational activities. For every $1.00 appropriated to the refuge system in Fiscal Year 2011, the refuges contributed $4.87 in total economic output. Not too shabby an investment.
I'm not suggesting converting all lands to wildlife refuges would solve all county problems, but I am suggesting it's time to stop blaming the owl, the murrelet, and the salmon. It's time to stop pointing the finger at laws designed to benefit us all, which protect the natural resources that make our state a beautiful place full of wonders that people travel from around the world to see.
If this is about jobs, put up a jobs bill. If this is about county funding, find another way: create incentives for companies to move there, earmark a few federal projects to take place in those counties and stimulate things that way, maybe even make the landowners of those counties pay taxes for the services they need.
There are some positives in the Wyden O&C bill (summarized here) in balancing perceived human socio-economic need with environmental protections, but I didn't see anything in my reading on the matter to suggest anyone was seriously proposing we keep some proportion of the logs in Oregon until they're processed into finished products or anything that would really create jobs.
What we need right now is more conservation, and logging-industry lobbyists shouldn't be able to convince anyone that the problem will be solved if only a few profiteers at the top can get a compromise on natural resources protections and use low-wage jobs to ship raw materials overseas and then sell a finished product back to the Americans they just deprived of real employment opportunities. That tactic is a different kind of short-sighted, however many times the word "sustainable" appears in a plan.
Pablo Martos is an ecologist and land manager living in Portland. He labors under the curse of a disturbingly wide range of interests, and you can read about some of them at his Twitter feed or his nature blog.
Viewed from the Saddle Mountain trail in the Coast Range, a clearcut in the
headwaters of the Lewis and Clark River in Clatsop County.
Additional photos (top to bottom) courtesy of the Bureau of Land Managment; David Tvedt; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Walter Siegmund.