A Way Forward for Oregon’s O&C Forests

By K. Norman Johnson, University Distinguished Professor, College of Forestry

Photo by Danielle White

Any fair-minded reading of the history of the O&C (Oregon and California Railroad) lands in western Oregon would conclude that they were intended to provide economic support for the 18 counties in which they reside. We, as a country, have shifted their use to protection of owls, fish and other creatures. How do we make the counties whole? OSU senior forestry students, in their “capstone” course, have suggested a way forward.

Under the O&C Act of 1937, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Western Oregon forests shall be managed under the principle of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries while also considering other resources and other federal laws. Concentrated in southwest Oregon, the harvest from the 2 million acres of these forests was a major source of employment for decades. Also the counties received half of the stumpage revenue (in lieu of property taxes), an important source of income for libraries, public health and many other programs.

Legal challenges to the adequacy of BLM conservation of threatened and endangered species, especially the northern spotted owl, led to a virtual shutdown of BLM timber sales in the early1990s, followed by the Norwest Forest Plan developed by the Clinton Administration. While that plan has been praised for its focus on biodiversity, its other goal of providing a sustainable harvest of timber has not been realized. Southwest Oregon counties have been left on the edge of financial disruption. The Oregon congressional delegation has struggled to provide federal appropriations, but payments run out in 2012, and prospects for renewal are dim.

Last spring, my senior forest management class tackled this problem in two ways: 1) they developed management strategies that could provide a predictable, sustainable long-term supply of timber from these forests, and 2) they estimated the monetary value of ecosystem services from these lands that could be used as a basis of a permanent federal appropriation to the counties.

Building on the limited cases where BLM has successfully harvested timber, we focused on strategies that had immediate ecological benefits using harvest methods that might be broadly acceptable to the public. We generally rejected clearcutting and the harvest of old-growth. Rather we focused on recent science highlighting the need for forest conditions that occurred historically after large wildfires, where a significant legacy of standing trees was left and which allowed the new forest to emerge gradually from the shrubs and forbs of early successional ecosystems. Under this scenario, the O&C forests could fill a special ecological niche that our private lands generally do not provide. Student simulation of this scenario on an area of these forests south of Marys Peak suggests that they would provide a modest, but sustainable, supply of timber while contributing needed biodiversity.

Next, the students estimated the monetary value of ecosystem services from these lands focusing on carbon sequestration and recreational use. Using the current very low prices for carbon and willingness-to-pay estimates for recreational use, the students found that tens of millions of dollars of ecosystem services were being provided by the relatively small proportion of BLM’s forests south of Marys Peak.

Studies show that the thinning being done on these lands will decline in coming decades until it essentially disappears, and counties will receive virtually no income from them. That was never the intent of either the O&C mandate or the Northwest Forest Plan, but that is what’s happening. The students’ plan may be the last, best hope for long-term productive management of these lands.

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