“Forest ecosystems are complex, more complex than we can think.”
The late Jack Ward Thomas, a research wildlife biologist and former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, often recited this line in speeches he gave.
He was only referring to ecosystems.
Throw in economics and social wants and desires, and the equation becomes significantly more complicated.
All forests can’t be all things at all times in all places. You can’t have an old-growth and a young forest at the same time. A forest can’t maximize carbon storage and reduce the wildfire risk at the same time.
Wildfires rejuvenate forests for some species, while taking away habitat from other species. High-severity wildfires sometimes burn through streamside areas; the resulting ash, sediment and lack of shade can increase water temperatures and alter the water quality.
Sustainable-production forest management provides wood, a renewable, carbon-storing building material and packaging material, but it typically results in only early and mid-aged forests on the landscape.
Publicly traded companies that own and manage land have a responsibility to provide the best rate of return on investment for their shareholders.
Humans need and want all of these different goods and services a forest can provide. So how do we accomplish this wide variety of sometimes competing, sometimes complementary values?
An essential first step is to look at the ownership patterns, what the primary goals are on those lands and how they differ. In Oregon, over half (56 percent) of the forests are controlled by the federal government, 19 percent by industrial forest owners, 18 percent by family forest owners, 4 percent by state, 2 percent by tribes and 1 percent by local governments.
Industrial landowners provide about 63 percent of the wood harvested in Oregon, while managing less than 1 in 5 acres in the state.
Small private landowners provide about 12 percent of the wood from 18 percent of the forests. This reflects the wide variety of reasons family forest owners have for managing their lands. Some harvest, some don’t, but wood production is seldom their primary reason for owning their land.
Federal lands provide 15 percent of the wood harvested from about one-half of the land base. Still, those lands encompass wilderness areas, scenic areas, parks, old-growth forests and other non-wood values.
On a national level, private lands provide about 90 percent of the wood supply.
The net result is that society informally allocates wood production to private lands, particularly to industrial publicly traded landowners, while assigning biodiversity, recreation and other non-commodity values to public lands.
To assure basic water quality goals are met, states have passed laws or developed best management practices (BMP) that govern practices on private lands.
Another method to allow consumers to know about the protection of forest values that exceed basic state requirements has been the development of certification systems for forest management.
There are three systems in the U.S.: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), which is designed for family forest owners and run through the American Forest Foundation. (Full disclosure: The author is a volunteer inspector for ATF.)
All of these systems have standards and criteria as part of the evaluation process and certifying bodies that conduct the evaluations.
Certification for FSC and SFI are generally for large landowners, as it is a relatively expensive process. Most public lands are not certified, as they have numerous federal and/or state laws to meet.
John Tokarczyk with the Oregon Division of Forestry (ODF) explained that only 7 million of the almost 30 million forest acres in his state are certified by one of the three systems.
The previous governor directed the division to investigate how more Oregon wood could be recognized in the marketplace. ODF went through a third-party audit to see if the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA) would meet the ASTM 6712 standard for responsibly sourced wood.
Tokarczyk said, “The audit looked at the statute and rules plus field review of practices to assure they were being enforced on the ground.”
The review was successful, so now all lands treated through the OFPA can be marketed as responsibly sourced, if the landowner chooses to set up a system to trace the logs from forest to mill.
The Northwest Community Forest Coalition, an organization that is supporting communities looking for more balance and control in how the land in their backyards is managed to produce their desired values.
They want harvests and the jobs and economic values wood production provides, but also wildlife habitat, water quality consistency for municipal water supplies, fish habitat, etc. They are trying to find a balance without a dominant use being imposed on the land or the financial rate of return expected in the marketplace.
We all need water, whether it is for drinking, used for growing our food or harvesting fish that grow in it. In a meeting of the Northwest Community Forest Coalition in Astoria, Oregon, in early April, Bob McKane with the Environmental Protection Agency presented some interesting research and modelling (VELMA) results that illustrated the complexity and trade-offs of forests around water, wood and carbon.
McKane described recent research showing that fast-growing Douglas fir forests (15 to 45 years old) use a lot of water. Dominance of this age group in a watershed can therefore result in water deficits in a drainage.
Very young forests (1 to 15 years) after clear-cutting use relatively small amounts of water resulting in more water flowing in a stream. There is a transition of water use from one age to another.
Mature and old-age forests are in the middle between these extremes. McKane and other researchers hypothesize the water use transition from fast to moderate occurs at around 80 years of age, but more research is needed to discover when the transition occurs and how long it lasts.
The model his team has developed allows managers to look at the mix of forests across the landscape, and the resulting water effects of different mixes of forest ages in a watershed.
VELMA was tested on the Nisqually watershed in west-central Washington. The panel of experts discussing McKane’s results – and the Q&A afterward – illustrated these competing interests.
In the discussion, some people believed there would be synergistic benefits between longer rotations to benefit water and carbon by growing more wood.
However, with water deficits expected up to at least age 80, McKane was asked if thinning the fast-water-using forest could make more water available in the stream and he said yes for a period of time, 10 to 15 years, depending on how much of the forest was thinned.
However, this thinning reduces the amount of carbon being captured, so the values are counter-cyclical to each other.
Forest ecosystems – and economic and social wants and needs – are complicated. You can’t have it all in every place in time or space.
Jerry Franklin, a venerated research forest ecologist formerly with the U.S. Forest Service and University of Washington, in a speech last fall said, “Forest management is first and foremost a social endeavor.”
This is especially true in a democracy. Finding balance is a tricky business.