environment and natural resources

Oregon solutions project to produce energy, aid forest health

CORVALLIS - A new project on the Fremont National Forest near Lakeview, Ore., will work to thin the forests, reduce fire risks, protect jobs, produce electricity from biomass thinning, and form a model for other collaborations that merge the needs and interests of industry, government and environmental groups.

The College of Forestry at Oregon State University will join Lakeview County Commissioners in convening potential partners in the initiative, called the Lakeview Biomass Project.

Local leaders, working through Lake County Resources Initiative, are sponsoring the project. And last January, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski designated this work as an Oregon Solutions project, assuring participation of his staff and appropriate state agencies.

"If this project works the way we anticipate, there will be many benefits, for forest protection, private industry, local jobs, water resources, fish and wildlife," said Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry. "But more than that, we believe we can establish a model for more efforts of this type that would be relevant to millions of acres in Central and Eastern Oregon that face similar problems."

Like many areas in this dryer region of Oregon, forests are suffering from overcrowding, decades of fire suppression, insect and disease epidemics, and other concerns that leave them highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire.

It's generally agreed that careful forest thinning can help reduce wildfire risks, improve forest health, and free up water resources for use by fish and other wildlife. But such approaches, which can cost $300 to $1,500 per acre, are often prohibitively expensive unless something can be done to produce revenue that offsets the costs.

In this case, that offset mechanism is going to be a new electric power plant, fueled by wood.

A key collaborator in the initiative is The Collins Companies of Portland, Ore., which operates the Collins-Lakeview forest lands in this area, and one of the last surviving timber mills.

"The Collins Companies for many years have been one of the most progressive forest product companies in the Pacific Northwest, with a long interest in sustainable forestry and innovative forest products solutions," Salwasser said. "They already have a co-generation facility at their northern California operation, using the same technologies and providing the same type of ecological as well as economic benefits."

The new project would construct a larger electrical production plant, fueled by biomass from thinning operations in the nearby national forests, as well as sawmill wood by-products. The plant would feed more substantial amounts of electricity into the regional grid. A sustainable supply of wood from small trees with little market value would be taken from these lands, some for lumber production and some for electricity. The cost of building the new electrical plant would be offset with the sale of electricity and steam from the plant.

Lake County Resources Initiative and The Collins Companies are working with two power companies that finance, build and operate their own plants. The new plant will be located at the Collins Company, Fremont Sawmill, taking their older boiler off line and selling steam to the Fremont Sawmill for their kilns.

Besides the immediate benefits of reducing fire risks, there may be other payoffs, experts say. A major wildfire would release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

But the controlled use of that same wood for lumber or electrical production would be positive in terms of "greenhouse gas" emissions. Future fires would not release the same amount of carbon dioxide, the wood that goes into building products stores carbon, and the biomass that goes into power production offsets the need to produce that energy from fossil fuels.

Local jobs in mills and forest thinning would also be created, fire fighting costs might be reduced, tax revenues would be generated, and substantial water and recreational benefits might result.

"If this works right, there could be a lot of benefits," Salwasser said. "Some will be very tangible, such as the production of wood products, electricity, and local residents who will be able to keep good paying jobs," Salwasser said. "But we're also going to evaluate the whole range of environmental, ecological, wildlife and other payoffs from the project. For instance, there should be carbon sequestration benefits that have global climate implications, and might be turned into carbon credits you could sell."

If the project is effective, it could be used to create a model that other localities could learn from and use, with local adjustments, to suit the needs of their own lands, environmental concerns and forest product companies, Salwasser said. Among other things, strategies such as this are one of the recommendations included in the recent Oregon Strategy for Greenhouse Gas Reductions that has been presented to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

"The model we are developing is one where we will be creating jobs and restoring the forest to more natural conditions," said Jim Walls, executive director of Lake County Resources. "Ecological restoration and economic development can accomplish common goals for the environment and the community. They are not mutually exclusive."

Collaborators on the project include OSU, Portland State University, The Collins Companies, Fremont National Forest, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Forestry, Lake County Resources Initiative, conservation interests, and other groups.

"It's good to see groups that sometimes have been in opposing positions come together to create common ground and land management approaches that everyone can support," Salwasser said.

An agreement committing partners to cooperate in the proposed thinning and construction of the new power plant should be complete within six months, Salwasser said, and work in the forest will begin soon after that.

This is the first Oregon Solutions project that the OSU College of Forestry has become involved in, he said, but others may follow in the future.

Oregon Solutions grew out of the Oregon Sustainability Act of 2001. At first it was operated by the executive branch of state government, and now by PSU. The program promotes a new style of community governance based on collaboration, integration and sustainability. About 20 projects around Oregon are already under way.

Story By: 

Hal Salwasser, 541-737-1585

Logging to being at major forest research effort

CORVALLIS - Timber harvesting will begin this summer in the Hinkle Creek Paired Watershed Study, one of Oregon's most ambitious research efforts since the 1960s to determine the impact of modern forest practices on fish in forested streams.

The 10-year project is administered by the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

The Hinkle Creek Paired Watershed Study is larger, and will last longer, than most research efforts on the environmental impacts of forest practices, and it will give policy makers new information on the relationship between timber production and protection of Oregon's fisheries and aquatic habitat.

Data collection has been under way for four years in this forest in the foothills of the central Cascade Range near Sutherlin, Ore. This will provide a background understanding of the hydrology, water quality, fisheries, other aquatic animals and aquatic habitat characteristics before timber harvesting begins. The site was last logged around 1950, and is owned by the Roseburg Forest Products company.

"For decades there have been improvements in forest practices, scientific advances, new road construction techniques, a move toward logging of young or small diameter trees, and the use of harvesting equipment that has a much smaller environmental footprint," said Arne Skaugset, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering at OSU, and lead scientist in this research effort.

"Forest management and timber harvesting in today's second growth forest stands are quite different than in the past," Skaugset said. "However, many assumptions regarding their environmental impacts are still based on studies that were carried out in the 1960s."

With the current listing of many species and runs of salmonids as threatened or endangered, there is a strong need to protect fisheries and aquatic habitat in Oregon. However, the forest sector is also critical, generating 85,000 jobs and more than $12 billion annually to the state economy. A contemporary data set is needed to inform policy makers, and the hope is this new study will provide that.

The Hinkle Creek watershed is similar to many others and may help answer some questions regarding the protection needed for "headwater" streams during timber harvest. These are very small streams that run water all year. They don't support a fishery, but can influence water quality downstream.

"Current Oregon forest practices regulations don't require buffers on headwater streams during timber harvesting," said Steve Tesch, professor and head of the OSU Department of Forest Engineering.

"However, when the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds was formulated, it identified a need for better knowledge about the functioning of this part of the watershed ecosystem," Tesch said. "The Oregon Board of Forestry is considering an update to riparian protection rules, including the need for protection of headwater streams during harvesting. While results from the Hinkle Creek study will not be available in time to inform the current discussion, the goal of studies like this is to anticipate emerging policy questions and work to strengthen the scientific foundation for Oregon forest practice regulations."

Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry, said that the stakes are very high.

"It's imperative to protect water quality and fisheries, but we must have a body of field science to know what is really needed," Salwasser said. "Continued pressure to move forest rules beyond the state-of-the-science has the potential to cause needless loss of private property value and productive land base."

In the absence of high quality, experimental field data, state and federal regulators could default to a "precautionary approach" in protecting aquatic habitat on private forestlands with more than is actually needed for water quality and fish, Salwasser said. Excess precaution would have implications for jobs and the state's economy. BLM and Forest Service managers also seek an improved scientific basis for aquatic protection strategies in managed forests on federal lands, and an understanding of landscape-scale cumulative effects where federal lands are interspersed with private lands.

At Hinkle Creek, the treatment and control watersheds will be studied on a long-term basis to determine the impact of modern forest practices compared with unmanaged sites. Areas of research include watershed hydrology, fisheries, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, stream chemistry and soils. The response to forest practices will be tracked over time using tags for fish and other advanced technologies. Everything from caddis flies to cutthroat trout will be counted, measured and mapped, and instruments will measure water temperature, discharge, turbidity and sediment content.

If researchers are able to obtain the funding, they plan to expand this research effort to at least two other sites that have different geology, climate and other terrain characteristics. This would provide policy makers even more data to draw on regarding forest management in different terrain and forests.

Collaborators on this research include the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences; Forest and Rangelands Ecosystem Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey; the Oregon Forest Resources Institute; Oregon Forest Industries Council; Oregon Department of Forestry; Associated Oregon Loggers; Bureau of Land Management; Douglas County; and others.

Oregon's Congressional delegation and leadership by Sen. Gordon Smith, Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Greg Walden and Rep. Peter DeFazio have been instrumental in obtaining federal funding for this project.

The research site at Hinkle Creek also serves as a demonstration area where students, the public, natural resource professionals and policy makers can go and observe the ongoing forest management and research activities.

Story By: 

Steve Tesch, 541-737-4952

Athletes, spectators faced unprecedented air pollution at 2008 Olympic Games

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Particulate air pollution during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing constantly exceeded levels considered excessive by the World Health Organization, was far worse than other recent Olympic Games, and was about 30 percent higher than has been reported by Chinese environmental experts – even though some favorable weather conditions helped reduce the problem.

The weather, in fact, turned out to be more valuable in addressing this concern than major programs by the Chinese government to heavily restrict automobile use, close factories and slow construction during and before the Olympic games.

These findings are among the final results just published in Environmental Science and Technology, a professional journal, in the first comprehensive study of particulate air pollutants in Beijing and how they compared to past Olympics.

The research was done before, during and after the 2008 Olympics by scientists from Oregon State University and Peking University, in work funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States and the National Science Foundation of China.

“Considering the massive efforts by China to reduce air pollution in and around Beijing during the Olympics, this was the largest scale atmospheric pollution experiment ever conducted,” said Staci Simonich, an OSU associate professor of environmental and molecular toxicology. “Despite all that, it was some evening rains and favorable shifts in the winds that provided the most relief from the pollution.

“This demonstrates how difficult it is to solve environmental problems on a short-term, local basis,” she added.

And despite some favorable weather and the pollution control efforts, researchers said, the end result was some of the most severe particulate pollution that Olympic athletes have dealt with in recent games. The levels were about two to four times higher than that of Los Angeles on an average day.

In some of the first comparisons of these type ever made, scientists determined that particulate matter air pollution in the Beijing Olympics were about double the levels of recent games in Athens, Greece; triple those of Atlanta, Ga.; and 3.5 times higher than the games in Sydney, Australia. However, the study also noted that, because of its control efforts, Beijing had the most significant decrease in particular air pollution compared to the other Olympic sites around the time of their games.

Despite these efforts, levels of coarse particular matter were higher than considered safe by the World Health Organization 81 percent of the time during the Beijing Olympics. They reached unacceptable levels 100 percent of the time for the most dangerous particulate matter (smaller than 2.5 microns), which is more easily inhaled into the lungs and causes more serious health problems. Levels of the smaller, most harmful particulate matter was also the least affected by government efforts to reduce pollution output, the study concluded.

The finding of levels of pollution higher than those announced previously by Chinese officials reflects a difference in measurement methodology, researchers said, although the approaches used in this study have been widely accepted for many years.

The studies were initially prompted due to traditionally high levels of air pollution in Beijing and the potential risk they posed to athletes and spectators, Simonich said. The city of 17 million people is surrounded by mountains in several directions that trap air pollutants, and has faced significant increases in particulate air pollution in recent years due to increasing industrialization, numbers of automobiles, coal and biomass burning, and other causes.

Atmospheric particulate matter, researchers say, is a concern because various sized particles have potentially toxic chemicals “sorbed” to them. The fine particles have been linked to increased respiratory morbidity and mortality. In China, particulate matter air pollution is believed to be responsible for about one million premature deaths per year, researchers said in their study.

Of some note, the scientists said, is that efforts taken to constrain air pollution may be having a lasting value – particulate matter air pollution in Beijing was as much as 27 percent lower last fall than in the same months a year earlier. Some of this, however, may have been attributable to lower levels of industrial and economic activity.

Simonich said that there is no scientific evidence so far of any health problems that have been linked to the short-term exposure of athletes or spectators to this pollution during the Olympic competition.

“The athletes and visitors were only exposed for a very short time,” Simonich said. “Millions of other people there face this air quality problem their entire lives. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen – you could look directly at the sun and not have a problem, due to the thickness of the haze.”


Story By: 

Staci Simonich, 541-737-9194

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OSU scientists study air pollution

The research on this study was done by OSU scientists Staci Simonich and Wentao Wang in both field research

Earth's services in peril, new report concludes

WASHINGTON - The innumerable benefits provided by the Earth - everything from fresh water and clean air to productive soils, wild fisheries, and genetic resources - have been depleted at an unprecedented rate in the past 50 years, and in many cases humans are living on borrowed time unless they wake up, a group of scientific experts said today.

In presentations made jointly in 12 cities around the world, authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment delivered a major report on the grim status of the services provided by the planet's ecosystems and the consequences to humans. The report also outlined possible responses that might be adopted to improve ecosystem management and contribute to human well-being.

"This is a sobering report card - but one with useful and hopeful options," said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University, and one of the study's 1,360 authors from 95 countries.

"Everyone in the world depends on nature and ecosystem services to provide the conditions for a decent, healthy and secure life," Lubchenco said. "Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in recent decades to meet growing demands for food, fresh water, fiber and energy," she said. "Although these changes have helped to improve the lives of billions, they have also weakened nature's ability to deliver other key services such as purification of air and water, protection from disasters and the provision of medicines."

Only four of the ecosystem services examined by the assessment were found to be increasing in their ability to benefit human populations, while 15 were in decline. Five more were found to be in a stable state overall.

"Much of the increase in food and timber production we've seen over the last few decades has come at the expense of other key services needed for future food and timber production, as well as other services," Lubchenco said.

Steps can be taken to help address and even reverse some of these crises, the researchers said, but the first and most important step is to understand the gravity of the situation. That is what the new assessment, which was called for in 2000 by the United Nations and supported by a diverse group of nations, agencies and industry, is designed to do.

Five years in the making, the mammoth study was the work of thousands of leading experts around the world. It explored the nature of the Earth's ecosystems, the ways in which they function, the services they provide to humans, whether or not those services are being used sustainably, and what the future may hold. Separate reports addressed specific groups, such as the business community.

The report concludes that human actions are depleting Earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.

Among the findings of the report:

  • Humans depend for their existence far more than they realize on the intricate web of physical and biological systems provided by the Earth - the food and fresh water we need to survive, wood for shelter, and fresh air to breathe.
  • More changes have been made to the Earth's ecosystems in recent decades than at any other time in human history - since 1945, more forests, savannah and grasslands have been converted to agriculture than in the previous two centuries.
  • Some of the most critical ecosystem functions are poorly understood or appreciated - the contribution of forests to air quality, wetlands for water filtration and flood control, the health of soils as the basis for our food supply.
  • The demand for water by people and industry has doubled since 1960. Underground aquifers are drying up, and sometimes the flow of once-mighty rivers such as the Nile in Africa or Colorado in North America is drained so severely that the river never reaches the sea.
  • The speed of global warming is greater than anything seen for at least 10,000 years, making it more difficult for many species to survive and adapt to new conditions.
  • About 12 percent of birds, 25 percent of mammals and at least 32 percent of amphibians are threatened with extinction over the next century.
  • Increases in food production have kept pace with population growth, but often at the expense of other ecosystem services that form the foundation for more food - depleted soils, over-fished oceans, polluted waters.
  • Abrupt changes and "tipping points" may soon be reached in many ecosystems, resulting in catastrophic climatic or biological changes over a very short time with little warning.
  • Poverty and degradation of nature may turn into a downward spiral, in which poor communities have fewer options to conserve natural resources, the abuse of land increases and even greater poverty results.
  • The impact of ecosystem disruption often falls first and most heavily on the poor, while wealthier economies can afford some engineered solutions that at least temporarily forestall the crisis.

    "We hear a lot about various environmental problems and ecological issues, but this report integrates all of the changes under way and shows explicitly how they relate to human well-being," Lubchenco said.

    The severity of the problems, Lubchenco said, does not mean the situation is hopeless.

    "Social change is not always steady and gradual," she said. "Once people better understand the situation and what we have to do, I think it's possible we could see dramatic actions from many groups, including business, the general public, religious groups, and the scientific and political communities. The scientific community is offering an evaluation and suggested options. Now is a real opportunity for leadership."

    The study said that three key changes must take place before major change is realistic.

    People must first understand that the services provided by nature are not free and limitless. Local communities must have real influence in how conservation decisions are made, and end up with a fair share of the benefits. And the whole process must become more broad-based, not confined to a single government agency or one small part of a corporate bureaucracy.

    Better understanding the real economic value of natural systems, and the bottom-line cost of losing them, will help, the study suggested.

    Businesses must also learn that their long-term corporate survival may depend on protection of ecosystems, the report concluded, and they should explore changing consumer preferences and new business opportunities created by the demands of a changing world.

    A copy of the report can be found on the web at www.millenniumassessment.org

  • Story By: 

    Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337

    Clearing fire-prone vegetation near home crucial in drought

    REDMOND - Property owners in rural or remote forested areas of eastern and western Oregon should be reducing vegetation on their property to lower fire risk later in the season, advises Stephen Fitzgerald, a forestry specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.

    "It's been dry this winter - really dry for this time of year," warned Fitzgerald. "And it's probably not going to get much better, given the poor winter snow pack."

    Earlier this month, OSU and U.S. Forest Service bio-climatologists projected that the drought severity in the Pacific Northwest will only get worse in the coming months and reach levels that were generally seen during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Some early spring rain has dampened the soil and raised local streams, but hasn't significantly changed the outlook for summer.

    "Rural and remote homes, especially those that are in or adjacent to forest and rangelands, are at higher risk for wildfire than city dwellings," said Fitzgerald.

    Having local fire protection does not guarantee safety from wild fire.

    "Don't live under the illusion that fire fighters will be able to extinguish a wildfire before it gets to your home and property," Fitzgerald warned. "Late winter and early spring is a great time to reduce fuels and other fire hazards around homes and property. Think of it as part of your spring clean-up."

    To lessen the risk of wildfire, Fitzgerald offers a few simple steps to protect homes and property in wooded and rural areas. Most of these tasks can be completed in just one weekend.

  • Create a "green-belt" - such as a lawn, that is at least 10 to 30 feet wide around homes.
  • Landscape with fire-resistant plants.
  • Clean and remove conifer needles and other debris from roofs and gutters.
  • Prune trees up to eight to 10 feet to eliminate "fuel ladders." The pruning height can be varied so trees are more natural appearing.
  • Reduce the number of shrubs under trees and in non-irrigated portions of the lot.
  • Thin trees so that there is about 10 feet between tree crowns; clean up thinning debris.
  • Consider removing trees up against houses and branches overhanging the roof. If the trees can't be removed - for sentimental or other reasons - at least prune the branches so they are not in contact with the side of the house or roof.
  • Keep firewood stacked 30 feet away and uphill from homes.
  • Replace a wood shake roof with a fire-resistant roof as soon as possible or when most feasible.

    "One of the challenges homeowners encounter when cleaning up their property is what to do with all that debris," said Fitzgerald.

    Options include burning small piles, chipping the material or bringing the debris to local landfills. Contact local fire departments for burning regulations before striking a match, advises Fitzgerald.

    Portable chippers can be rented to grind up woody debris. The chipped material can then be spread out on the soil surface beneath your trees, used as landscape mulch or spread on a garden path.

    Some county landfills offer "free days" for bringing in yard debris. The landfill then chips the material to make large batches of mulch used by public works departments and others. Check with your local county landfill to see if they offer such a program.

    Think about fire prevention when planning a new home in a forested area, advises Fitzgerald.

    Use fire-resistant siding and non-combustible composition, tile or metal roofing materials.

    Limit the amount of deck area because hot embers can ignite wooden decks or use fire-resistant deck material.

    Build on a level portion of your property when possible (fire burns faster on slopes).

    Install alternative water (e.g. cistern or pond) sources for firefighters because electric power often fails or is shut off during a fire, making your well and outside faucets unusable. Create adequate access to your property for fire-fighting equipment to enter and exit easily. Check with your local fire protection district for entrance/exit (ingress/egress) standards. Don't forget to display reflective address numbers where your driveway meets the street. Most local fire departments have reflective address signs available.

    For more information on wildfire prevention, Fitzgerald suggests these websites:

  • Firewise Home Page: http://www.firewise.org/
  • Oregon Department of Forestry: http://www.odf.state.or.us/ (Click on "Fire in the Forest")
  • Colorado State Forestry Service: http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CSFS/homefire.html
  • Fire-Resistant Plant List for Oregon: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/emergency/FireResPlants.pdf

    Contact rural fire protection district offices for fire-related information and burning regulations. Local field offices of the Oregon Department of Forestry and local county offices of the OSU Extension Service can also help provide additional information or help direct you to other sources of information.

  • Source: 

    Stephen Fitzgerald, 541-548-6088

    Byrne lecture to address climate change

    CORVALLIS - Is global climate change happening now? Should we be seriously concerned about even greater change during this century? Or, as best-selling author Michael Crichton would have us believe, are we just in a "state of fear?"

    The next speaker in the John Byrne Lecture Series at Oregon State University will shed some light on this overheated subject. Bruce Wielicki, a senior NASA Earth scientist, will speak on "Global Climate Change: Serious Risk or Environmental Hoax?"

    The lecture will be Monday, April 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the LaSells Stewart Center on the OSU campus. The talk, which is sponsored by Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, is free and open to the public.

    Wielicki has given climate lectures at the Carnegie Centennial Lecture series, but also to church groups, Rotary clubs, and teacher workshops. He has provided input on climate to public science museums in New York and London, and has appeared on National Public Radio.

    Wielicki is the senior scientist for Earth science at NASA's Langley Research Center, and has been involved in climate research for over 25 years, publishing more than 60 journal articles. He has received NASA's science medal as well as its leadership medal, and served on a wide range of both U.S. and international scientific committees for climate research.

    In his lecture, Wielicki will summarize some of the science behind climate change concerns and highlight some of the key uncertainties and challenges. "Some of the challenges are scientific," he notes, "but others are societal and organizational."

    The Byrne Lecture Series, named for former OSU President and NOAA Administrator John Byrne, presents public lectures on subjects of broad topical interest in marine and atmospheric sciences, particularly on themes of resources, policy and communicating science to an interested but non-specialist audience.


    Bruce Wielicki, 757-864-5683

    McDonald-Dunn Forest meeting planned

    CORVALLIS - The Oregon State University College Forests will hold its annual public meeting on Tuesday, April 5.

    This meeting, to discuss future plans and issues relating to the McDonald and Dunn Forests operated by the OSU College of Forestry, will begin at 7 p.m. in the main meeting room at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, 645 N.W. Monroe Ave.

    Further information about the meeting can be obtained from the College of Forestry at (541) 737-4452.

    Story By: 

    Trisha Wymore, 541-737-6702

    Researc indicates no relief for drought, fire concerns

    CORVALLIS - It does not appear there will be any major relief this spring or summer from the unusually dry weather that has recently hit the Pacific Northwest, according to new projections of drought severity and fire risk that are based on "general circulation" models that forecast global climate.

    The analysis, which was developed by researchers at the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and Oregon State University, also shows that the northwestern part of the country will face forest and rangeland fires this year that could be unusually severe and generally the worst of any area in the nation.

    Wet weather has recently predominated in the Southwest, Central and Atlantic coast regions of the United States. As a result, 2005 should be a fairly mild fire season in most areas of the nation.

    But the same forecasts for a period from now to August show some pockets of drought severity and associated fire risks in southern Florida, Maine and southeastern Arizona. And there is a major problem of historic proportions developing in a six-state region that includes Oregon, Washington, northern California, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

    "We project that the drought severity the northwestern states are now experiencing will only get worse in coming months, and reach levels that were generally seen during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s," said Ronald Neilson, a bioclimatologist with the U.S. Forest Service and professor of botany at OSU.

    Severe drought does not automatically translate into major fires, said Neilson and colleague James Lenihan, a fire and ecosystem modeler.

    "It takes ignition sources such as lightning storms to trigger multiple fires, and that doesn't always happen," Lenihan said. "But those events are fairly common and, because of that, fires will often occur if vegetation, moisture and climatic conditions are right, which it appears they will be this year."

    The latest consensus forecast for fire risk this spring and summer indicate huge forest and rangeland fire outbreaks in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, and more isolated but severe fire potential in forests near Eugene, Roseburg, Bend and the Portland area in Oregon.

    Other severe fires are forecast for parts of southwestern Idaho and parts of Montana.

    Unlike short-term weather forecasts, these projections are ultimately based on long-term, global climate models and a "general vegetation model" created by researchers from the Forest Service and OSU, including the work of associate professor of geosciences Chris Daly and the OSU Spatial Climate Analysis Service.

    These systems have simulated drought and fire in the American West, for instance, fairly accurately backwards in time to 1895, and can also be used to make both near-term and longer projections into the future. They are constantly updated, and now include the latest actual weather information through the end of last January.

    In terms of the current projections for a tier of states in the northwestern U.S., it appears the situation is going to go from bad to worse. It bears some similarity to conditions last seen in 2001.

    "We use five different global climate models as the underlying basis for our projections, and they are all showing the same thing," Neilson said. "It is going to become extremely dry in many parts of the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountain states, and the fire risk is going to be significantly higher than normal. There is nothing to indicate a wet spring."

    Fire is one obvious implication, the researchers said, but stream flows, fisheries, agriculture, recreation and industry may all be affected.

    According to Lenihan, the major storms that inundated southern California and other parts of the Southwest this year have significantly reduced the fire risks in that region, at least for this year. Vegetation growth that occurs during years with heavier rains, however, can sometimes set the stage for major fires in following years if drought resumes.

    The models that simulate the droughts and the likelihood of fire are complex and sometimes counter-intuitive, the researchers said, involving such things as vegetation growth, fuel loads, soil moisture, climatic trends and other factors.

    "Last year was a pretty severe drought over quite a bit of the nation, but for various reasons our model didn't really suggest a bad fire year for 2004, and in fact it was a pretty mild year," Lenihan said.

    "That was fortunate, because there's some evidence that the low-risk fire years are more difficult to predict than those with higher risk," he said. "When our models show a very high level of fire, as they do now, they are usually pretty accurate."

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Graphic images mapping the U.S. drought and fire risk conditions are available to illustrate this story, at the web site of OSU News and Communication Services, at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/photos/index.html

    Story By: 

    Ron Neilson, 541-750-7303

    Oregon "Plant Atlas" offers mass of new data

    CORVALLIS - A new Oregon Plant Atlas is now available on the web, the result of years of work and a grass-roots effort by hundreds of volunteers and botanical professionals. It may benefit everyone from land use planners to scientists, home gardeners or lovers of wildflowers.

    The atlas is being released by the Oregon Flora Project, which is based in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University.

    The Oregon Flora Project is an ambitious initiative to study, catalog and make available information on literally every vascular plant in the state - each of the 4,516 species, subspecies and varieties of flowers, grasses, ferns, trees and other plants that grow in the wild. The challenge is huge, because the ocean dunes, forests, valleys, mountains and high desert of Oregon make it one of the most botanically diverse states in the nation.

    A flora of Oregon was last done more than four decades ago and is badly out of date.

    The new atlas was one of the key goals of the flora project, along with production of the actual flora - or reference manual for identifying plants - and a plant checklist and photo gallery. The atlas is on the web at http://www.oregonflora.org.

    "The information in the Oregon Plant Atlas will be useful for a broad spectrum of users," said Linda Hardison, an OSU research associate and coordinator of the Oregon Flora Project. "It's a real treasure trove of data. Anyone looking for information about a particular Oregon plant can discover where it is known to occur, other plants that may be found at that location, and a great deal more."

    Other maps that illustrate rainfall, topography, and ecoregions can also be superimposed over the plant location maps, providing more information about the plant and its native ecosystem.

    The creators of this web-based system envision it being used primarily by botanists and other science professionals, but also by land developers, restoration experts, ecologists and historians. Botanists might use it to track the spread of invasive weeds in the state. A home gardener who wants to plant some native plants or wildflowers could easily determine what would grow well in a certain location. K-12 teachers and students could use the atlas in class projects.

    And anyone who simply wants to go for a walk in the woods now has more information available than ever before about the local plants they might see on their stroll.

    The plants included in the survey are those that are growing in Oregon "without cultivation," educators say. In other words, it might not include an exotic plant obtained from a nursery. But if that same plant escaped the confines of someone's backyard and began to reproduce naturally in the wild - whether it's native to Oregon or an invasive newcomer - it would be included in the atlas.

    The atlas currently has 385,000 records of observed plants or plant collections that have been incorporated into a computerized database with many sophisticated mapping capabilities.

    Some records are what botanists call "vouchered," meaning the plant record comes from an actual dried specimen documented in a herbarium, such as the large OSU Herbarium or others like it.

    "Unvouchered" observations of plants are made from many sources, including state agencies, interested volunteers, and private groups, especially the Native Plant Society of Oregon.

    "Volunteers have been indispensable to the creation of this atlas and other goals of the Oregon Flora Project," Hardison said. "Hundreds of people have contributed both money and time to assist with this work, including more than $300,000 in the past 10 years to help keep the project going." Even though the flora project information is relevant to federal and state research projects, and work is under way to secure more stable and long-term funding, the work still depends on individual donations to fund basic expenses, Hardison said. Anyone wishing to make a tax-deductible donation to support this work can send a check to Friends of the Oregon Flora Project, Box 402, Corvallis, Ore., 97339.

    People wishing to volunteer their time to assist with the project may contact Hardison at (541) 737-4338. There is work for people of all skill levels and ages, and past volunteers have included everyone from professional botanists to retired people looking for an excuse to go for a walk outdoors.

    The organization recently experienced a profound loss, as the founder and director of the Oregon Flora Project, Scott Sundberg, passed away last December.

    "The staff and supporters of the project have done a tremendous job at maintaining progress," Hardison said. "Completion of the Oregon Flora Project will be a fitting tribute to Scott, who devoted much of his life to creating a new flora for the state."

    Some volunteers with the work have become its most enthusiastic supporters.

    "In a way, it is fitting that this should have been such a grassroots sort of thing," said Jerry Igo, a naturalist and botanist from Mosier, Ore. "Instead of a huge federal agency that could have put a few million into a flora project, but hasn't and won't, it is heartening to see that many dedicated people will get it done.

    "Thomas Jefferson told Lewis and Clark to go out there and identify everything," Igo said. "Well, it's been nearly 200 years and it is high time we had an inventory."

    Story By: 

    Linda Hardison, 541-737-4338

    Program brings outdoor issues to inner city youth

    PORTLAND - An inner city outreach program working with Portland Public Schools has been nationally recognized for its success in building bridges between natural resources issues, urban youth and the need to encourage more young scholars to pursue careers in the environmental sciences.

    The program, organized by the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and supported by three other land management and research agencies, recently received the Annual Diversity Award for Partnership Achievement from Gale Norton, U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

    "This is a chance to spark an interest in natural resource issues among young Portland-area students, and help steer them toward some subjects they might otherwise not have considered," said David Stemper, manager of pre-college programs for the OSU College of Forestry. "We also try to connect them to internships and job opportunities, even during high school, and ultimately take their interests to the next level at OSU or a community college."

    Called the Inner City Youth Institute, the program since 1999 has been operating in northeast Portland, mostly at Grant High School and three area middle schools. The program director works with teachers and students, providing natural resource exploration opportunities, unique projects, mentors, and funding for field expeditions, equipment and substitute teachers.

    Students have responded positively. At Portland's Jesuit High School, Danielle Jackson said that the program has piqued her interest in watersheds. "The McKenzie River is my favorite," Jackson said, noting that she is considering studying hydrology at OSU.

    Oriented around field trips, the program is hands-on and offers contextual learning. Both high school and middle school students are working in the Columbia Slough on a salmon restoration project. In this instance, the city of Portland is planning next summer to do some dredging of silt in various areas to improve what was historically a site for salmon maturation and migration.

    But management officials wanted some baseline data on what bird and mammal species are now using the area and might be affected by this project - and the students are providing that. In this context, the program is more than just a student exercise, it produces original research and data being used by land management agencies.

    "The ICYI experience encourages high school teachers to incorporate natural resource management issues into their classroom curricula," Norton said in making the recent award. "Thank you and keep up the good work."

    Collaboration and funding support for this project comes from OSU, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

    Topics of study for the students include such things as exploration of salmon habitat and stream ecology, forestry and terrestrial ecology, and wildlife survey and management issues. All of the issues are explored at least in part with a forestry context, and the students often get a chance to work with natural resource professionals and sophisticated equipment. Recently, Portland students were doing studies in the Bull Run watershed with a $700 turbidimeter, conducting water quality assessments. Further expansion of the program is being considered, Stemper said, and one immediate goal is to further develop the program's non-profit branch in order to facilitate funding by private foundations.

    About two years ago one participant who was then in the eighth grade, Laura Harris, said she "just liked trees and exploring in the woods, and these trips give me a chance to do that."

    "I either want to be a rock star or do something in science," Harris said at the time. "Maybe forest biology or marine biology."

    Story By: 

    David Stemper, 503-725-5752

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    A student uses a tree corer.
    Students place salmon carcasses in watersheds.