CORVALLIS - Timber supplies available for harvest on private lands in Oregon have reached a sustainable plateau, some challenges remain in maintaining forest road systems and protecting soils, and battles will likely continue over the contentious issues surrounding stream and riparian zone management, experts said today at a symposium on the state of Oregon's forests.
The conference, "A Landmark Assessment of Oregon's Forest Sustainability," sponsored by the Oregon State University College of Forestry and the Oregon Board of Forestry, will present conclusions from a wide range of forestry experts, agency leaders and Gov. John Kitzhaber. Topics range from fish and wildlife health to soil and water protection, economic impacts, timber supply and public beliefs.
One expert, OSU forest economist Darius Adams, will outline some of the newest findings about timber supply and harvest potential in Oregon, which at this point is coming predominantly from private industrial and non-industrial timberlands with very limited contribution from public lands of any type.
"It appears that under existing policies all of our private timberlands in western Oregon can sustain their current harvest level, which is a combined total of about 2.75 billion board feet a year," Adams said. "That's only about 20-25 percent of the harvest level of the early 1960s, but the data suggest that timber inventory on private lands hit a plateau in the 1970s and hasn't really changed much since."
The harvest potential is higher on the non-industrial lands often managed by small woodland owners, Adams said, but they have not historically attempted to maximize their timber harvest and there's no evidence to suggest those patterns will change.
East of the Cascade Range, the timber inventory picture is less promising, Adams said. It has declined at least 20 percent since 1978, will probably continue dropping for another decade, and faces tough issues ranging from repeated insect and disease attacks to slower-growing forests that are more difficult to manage in an economically viable way.
Harvest levels from industrial private lands on the east side, which historically were about 450 million board feet a year, are already down to 300 million feet and will probably dwindle to 225 million board feet before they reach a sustainable level, Adams said. At the same time, harvest on public lands in the east region have dropped by 90 percent since the late 1980s, total lumber production has been cut in half, and 31 out of 48 lumber and plywood mills have closed.
"As a state, Oregon will be able to sustain its current level of timber harvest mostly because the industry is dominated by production on the west side," Adams said. "In eastern Oregon, the production levels have dropped so far that most of the wood is used locally and there's very little left for sale outside the state."
There may be further impacts on timber supply, Adams said, depending on the outcome of debates about widening buffer zones near streams or lengthening the required time between forest disturbances.
On the issues of soil and water protection, OSU professor emeritus of forest engineering Robert Beschta presented a picture of many successes with some challenges remaining for the future as forest management practices change.
"Our forest road system has by and large been completed, but to protect soils and streams in the future it will be important to maintain these roads and in some cases upgrade the culverts necessary to handle water flows," Beschta said.
On the frequently disputed issue of forest management and flooding, Beschta said the body of evidence suggests that forest management practices are likely to have little effect on downstream flooding and the impact of forestry in this area is minimal. Some of the biggest risks to forest soils, he said, are very hot slash burns or catastrophic wildfires that can deplete nutrients and increase erosion. Research indicates that cooler slash burns have little or no impact on soil health and water quality, he said.
One clear area of future concern, Beschta said, is the increasing use of large ground equipment for mechanized harvesting in forests, and the problems that may cause with soil compaction or loss.
"And of all the issues we face, probably the biggest challenge will continue to be riparian zones," Beschta said. "The simple question is how large buffer zones around streams have to be to protect water quality and fisheries, but there are no simple answers. This problem is one that ultimately will challenge many interest and regulatory groups, as well as forest landowners, to reach some type of consensus."
In related testimony about stream management, Gordon Reeves, a USDA fisheries biologist and courtesy professor at OSU, outlined some of the special concerns related to salmon and steelhead habitat.
In his research, Reeves has found that some of the best coho habitat tends to be lower in the watershed, which are often private, non-industrial ownership.
"If we're to sustain coho numbers, then we need to focus lower in the watershed," Reeves said.
"They're going to have a difficult time recovering coho if they keep focusing on federal and state lands."
This one-day conference is taking place at the LaSells Stewart Center at OSU. Organizers say it is the first step by the Oregon Board of Forestry to revise the Forestry Program for Oregon, and will provide insights into the landscape-level modeling that Oregon is using to assess forest conditions.