MYRTLE CREEK — Douglas County conservationist Cindy Haws looked at a hillside 10 miles east of Myrtle Creek that had been logged under the guidance of ecologically minded forestry professors and appeared disgusted.
“You have just lost a huge amount of wildlife habitat here,” said Haws, a member of the Myrtle Creek Rural Community Partnership.
The Buck Rising timber sale is a pilot project that showcases what could be the future of timber harvesting in Western Oregon. Loggers systematically left clumps on the hillside, a technique called “variable retention harvest.”
While environmentalists are concerned about the number of trees that were cut, timber industry officials look at the same harvest techniques and ask whether they can produce a reliable timber supply.
“My question is, 50 years from now, when the planted area grows up and the reserves are old trees, what are you going to do with that forest?” asked Bob Ragon, executive director of the Douglas Timber Operators. “How do you sustainably manage that piece of ground? I think it’s a one-shot deal.”
The Obama administration enlisted Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington and Norm Johnson of Oregon State University to develop harvesting principles and demonstrate them in Western Oregon.
Buck Rising is the first pilot project on the Roseburg Bureau of Land Management District to apply the techniques developed by the two professors, who also worked on the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. A second pilot project, White Castle, has been bogged down by litigation.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., has embraced the Franklin-Johnson approach, incorporating the principles in his bill to manage Oregon & California Railroad trust lands. The BLM is also considering using the principles in future sales and in its resource management plan.
The professors stress creating “early successional habitat,” forest clearings where flowers and shrubs grow unshaded by trees. Native plants thrive in the sunlight, and the plants feed butterflies, birds and small mammals, said BLM forester Abe Wheeler.
Such habitat is rare in Western Oregon because commercial logging favors quickly replanting and crews suppress wildfires that would create clearings.
Another reason for a lack of clearings is that on federal lands there hasn’t been a lot of harvesting since the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990.
“One of the challenges is that there is an array of organisms and critters and plants out there that need openings, and we don’t have them on federal lands anymore because we aren’t doing timber harvesting on federal lands,” Johnson said.
The Secretary of Interior endorsed the Franklin-Johnson plan as a way to balance spotted owl conservation, ecological benefits and timber harvest.
“When we implemented this project, it was with two goals in mind,” Wheeler said. “Let’s produce a diverse, complex, early successional habitat and deliver wood products to the market.”
The BLM awarded the timber sale to Glendale-based Swanson Group in July 2012 for $322,441. The sale produced more than 2 million board feet of timber, which the BLM estimated brought in $2 million in finished lumber.
“We are excited to see the BLM trying regeneration harvest,” said Cameron Krauss, vice president of legal affairs for the Swanson Group. “Most foresters out there clearly see the need for it.”
Krauss said he is concerned with the long-term use of the Franklin-Johnson plan.
“When you are planting few trees and not using brush control, our concern is what that will do to the productivity of the forest,” Krauss said. “But in the short term, the BLM has to find a way to do regeneration harvest again.”
Franklin said he believes Buck Rising confirms the logging principles are “in the right ballpark.”
“You are going to have to tweak these activities in different kinds of forest,” he said. “But as far as the forestry and ecological side of it is concerned, we are pretty much on target.”
Not everyone would agree, the professors said.
“We went from being heros because the environmental community dearly loved what we have done over the years. ... The minute we deviated from their agenda, all of a sudden we are no longer intelligent, no longer have expertise and no longer have ethics,” Franklin said. “It is unpleasant and somewhat unfamiliar, but we have been vilified before by the timber industry. People have tried to get us fired. It’s just unfortunate.”
“It’s one thing to question our expertise, it’s another thing to question your integrity, and there’s no doubt that the attacks on us have crossed the lines, especially when the attacks include the people who work with us,” he said. “It’s not very easy to have folks ask people you work with, ‘Why do you work with such an evil person?’”
Wheeler led a tour of Buck Rising on July 16. About 30 people attended, with most of the group representing residents near the sale or conservation organizations.
The field trip visited the sale’s three units, including an area logged where shrubs and other native plants are now growing. Wheeler pointed out hillsides where most of the trees were logged. The remaining trees are growing branches and budding because they are now able to get sunlight, Wheeler said.
The BLM organized the field trip to show how the harvest went. Many on the tour voiced concerns about how the project hurts the Myrtle Creek watershed, which supplies water for their property.
Robin Wooster said the Buck Rising project has dumped sediment into the stream that runs through her land on North Myrtle Road.
“I’m not happy with what it’s doing to the water down the stream,” Wooster said.
The debate grew louder at the base of a hill where a landslide occurred earlier this year.
“What went wrong?” Cascadia Wildlands Conservation Director Francis Eatherington repeatedly asked.
BLM soil scientist Ward Fond said there was no indication of slide risk when he assessed the area, adding, “I never say slides never happen.”
Johnson said he and Franklin suggested their harvesting principles more than a decade ago when the BLM reverted to commercial thinning programs. The BLM Roseburg District is running out of thinning projects, but is mandated to produce timber for mills.
“If we stop all timber harvesting on federal lands, the outcome will not be an ecologically desirable one because we need to be creating these open stages in forest development across the federal forest landscapes,” Franklin said.
With tongue in cheek, Franklin and Johnson said they have learned to leave at least one tree on each acre with future projects.
“We came to that (conclusion) because what the environmentalist groups did was manage to find the biggest gap and take a picture of it and call it a clear-cut,” Franklin said.
That picture appeared on an anti-clear-cut billboard on Interstate 5 near Eugene.
The two professors are now collaborating on a book about forest management.
•You can reach reporter Christina George at 541-957-4202 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.