Logging: An essential part of sustainable forestry

Published October 1, 2002

Logging. It was once what Oregon was all about. Now, it’s become almost a curse word in this land of Douglas firs and Ponderosa pines.

As I travel the state, I see mill after mill closed. I see businesses in rural communities shuttered. I see long-revered public agencies bashed around like a punching bag. I see recently harvested lands awash in a sea of vigorous, growing young trees. I also see federal forests at high risk of fire, insects, disease, or water stress—desperately in need of thinning to restore their health.

One-fourth the Oregon economy

While some would have us put our axes and saws away, worldwide demand for paper, furniture, packaging, and building materials is unstoppable. While our state economy slips and stumbles, money and jobs are locked up in the sweet-scented wood of our forests. It’s a bank account we’ve blindly turned our backs on.

Dot coms and high-tech have grabbed the headlines lately, but forest products still represent about one-fourth of Oregon’s economy. Without logging, there would be no forest industry. Without a forest industry, Oregon would be a much different place: more rural unemployment, a less-diverse economy, and private forests leveled for other uses. And, just as tragic, we couldn’t manage the forests to keep them healthy.

Global demand for wood products has increased 40 percent since 1960; it’s expected to grow another 66 percent by mid-century. Each year we Americans use one-third of all the wood that goes into paper, packaging, furniture, and building materials. Yet we produce only one-fourth of the world’s supply.

We let fires rip through our western forests and refuse loggers entry to thin small trees or harvest charred trees to restore the land. Blindly, we import wood from countries paying lower wages and tolerating environmental abuses long absent from American forests. Right now, the U.S. imports about one-third of its softwood lumber from Canadian forests. Some of those forests require five to 10 times the acres cut to produce the same amount of wood as one acre of coastal Douglas fir.

Some Oregonians would have us reduce the amount of wood we use and turn to other materials, such as steel, concrete, and plastics. They must not care about water, energy use, and pollution, because producing these non-wood materials consumes up to 10 times the water and energy—read carbon dioxide—than is consumed by producing a unit of finished wood. And the minerals and petroleum used to make these products are non-renewable—unlike trees.

Obviously, you don’t get wood without cutting a tree. And you can’t sustain the forests without carefully considering the tools of modern forestry: genetically superior trees, reforestation, and logging. Logging is just one part—but an essential part—of sustainable forestry.

Logging for forest health

I am a wildlife biologist by training. I’ve been in the natural resources profession for 30 years. I chose this work because I wanted to improve forest management for cleaner water, healthier fish and wildlife—what some call biodiversity. I’ve visited forests in every state in the U.S. and in Canada, Sweden, Mexico, and India. I can tell you the world—and Oregon—needs good forest management and conservation that balances logging with protecting and restoring diverse and healthy environments.

Oregon’s forests are the most productive in the world. Our coastal woods grow trees five to 10 times better than the average of forests worldwide. Our firs and pines are of premium quality for wood products. Oregon’s logging techniques result in the cleanest water coming from any land use in the state.

We also have some of the finest and largest areas of old forests in the nation, home to many plants and animals that would exist in far less abundance were those old forests to disappear—spotted owls, pine martens, and flying squirrels. But the continual spark of catastrophic fire seasons loudly tells us there are just too many trees in many western forests. This over-abundance puts many of our old, natural forests in great danger of bugs and fires.

Yes, I must use that “curse word” again—but please don’t jump to conclusions. It will take logging to reduce fire hazards and restore health to these forests. I’m not suggesting we log the magnificent old trees, or log every bit of forest, or log just for the biggest yield. I’m talking about thinning small to medium-sized trees in the most fire-prone forests to protect the largest and oldest trees and return fire to its more natural role. Small, more frequent fires—not incredible explosions.

Just two weeks ago I stood near a giant sugar pine at the Prospect Ranger Station east of Medford. I listened as the ranger told me that, in addition to fire risks, 10 percent of these precious trees are dying. The culprit? Overcrowding from younger trees drinking in all the water. He’s trying to get some thinning underway, but process and protest are like twin barricades. Nature will not let us protect these forests through paralyzing process, neglect, or timidity. Selective logging is an essential tool.

Calling all thoughtful people

Isn’t there a way for thoughtful people who care deeply about the environment to find common ground with those trying to meet people’s daily needs for food, fiber, and water? Isn’t there a place for both?

Logging should not be a curse word in Oregon, of all places, where the thud of the axe and grind of the saw literally built the state. The global appetite for wood and Oregon’s lush and productive forests are, like the sapling to the old growth, related. Our pressing needs to reduce fire risks and Oregon’s talented loggers, foresters, and mill workers are related. They watch and wait as the state’s economy slides.

Our federal and state agencies have a cohesive plan for taking care of forests at risk of fire. Let’s put it in action and tackle the hard work of restoring our forests using low-impact, selective logging and thinning to produce valuable renewable resources. At the same time, we’ll restore the family-wage jobs that helped build this place we love.

Hal Salwasser is dean of the College of Forestry and director of the Oregon Forest Research Laboratory at Oregon State University. He served 22 years with the U.S. Forest Service, including stints as regional forester in the Northern Rockies and for six years in Washington, DC as Deputy Director of Wildlife and Fisheries and Director of New Perspectives. This article first appeared in The Oregonian.