October 14, 2005

Starving the Timber Beast

The Oregonian today reports on an unexpected consequence of a tight federal budget:  the US Forest Service doesn't have enough money to prepare timber sales in old-growth forests.

From the article:

[T}he administration and Congress are starving the U.S. Forest Service of money to plan sales of the big trees, and fight the inevitable appeals and lawsuits by their defenders. Forest managers say they are no longer pouring their shrinking funds into thankless conflicts they rarely win.

"We can't afford expensive timber sales -- the kind where controversy is engendered," said Gary Larsen, supervisor of the Mount Hood National Forest. "We're trying to find those where people can agree on the benefits."

Nifty:  we can save money and old-growth in one step.  How come it took so long to figure this out?

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October 11, 2005

BC's Forestry Losing Streak

There's an interesting article in today's Vancouver Sun on the woes of BC's coastal forestry industry -- which, apparently, has had only one profitable year over the last decade.  That seems like a pretty astonishing losing streak -- and pretty clear evidence that the industry needs to do some serious thinking about itself.  From the article:

Hammered by changing markets, global competition, softwood-lumber tariffs and now a Canadian dollar that is stripping export industries of revenues, the coastal industry is fighting for its life, said Rick Jeffery, president of the Coast Forest Products Association.

We've written before about the risks of shackling your economy to commodity exports; you subject yourself to all sorts of hazards, ranging from exchange rate fluctuations to tarriff policies to competition from a globe full of low-cost producers.

But here's the kicker of the article:

The light at the end of the tunnel, ironically, is the mountain pine beetle. It is ravaging Interior forests and in five to 10 years, when the beetle has killed most of the province's pine trees, B.C. will face a timber shortage. That is when the coastal companies -- if the needed cost reduction, consolidation and re-investment takes place -- will be in a prime position to fill the lumber void by harvesting second-growth timber for export markets.

Oh, great.  When the pine beetle is done decimating the interior forests, timber companies can start making a profit cutting down the coast.  I can't wait.

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October 06, 2005

The Nature of Trend Watching

TaylorscheckerspotHigh gas prices may be grabbing headlines, but there's another trend worth watching: the Northwest's faltering ecosystems. Our (in)attention to ecosystem health is an example par excellence that we should measure what matters. All too often the converse is true: we let what matters be dictated by what we can measure.

Biological systems are enormously complex and are inherently dynamic. So precise up-to-the-minute trend data is usually not available. And because we can't measure and report on ecological conditions in a timely fashion that keeps pace with the demands of the 6 o'clock nightly news or the frenetic blogosphere, we often simply ignore the state of our ecosystems.

But for a change from fast news to slow news, consider today's news reports on the state of biological systems in the Northwest.

Otters_1 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports today that a joint study from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Friends of the San Juan Islands shows that 957 species in the Puget Sound area are at risk of extirpation. In addition to habitat loss, the principal agent of harm, the report fingers the usual suspects: "Pollution, climate change and invasions by non-native species..." (Read CBD's press release here.)

And in California, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that an attempt to expand the range of southern sea otters is now considered a failure. Members of the southern sub-species, now restricted in range to California, were unable to achieve viable population stability after being relocated to San Nicholas Island near Santa Barbara. Of the 140 otters transplanted there roughly 15 years ago, only 32 remain today.

In Oregon, the Eugene Register-Guard reports on the findings of a study by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Xerces demonstrates that forest insect outbreaks, an increasingly nasty problem for Northwest forests, cannot be addressed by logging or thinning the forests. In fact, cutting may actually make the problem worse. That's germane to the awful situation for forestry in British Columbia, where the mountain pine beetle is steadily wrecking havoc on the province's interior forests. A good piece on the economic implications for BC appeared recently in The Tyee.

None of these trends changes in a meaningful way on an hourly or daily basis. Each of them takes years to develop, the aggregate of many days of slow trends compounding, but their effects are far reaching. Will Puget Sound's biodiversity continue to diminish? Are the southern sea otters long for this world? Will the Northwest's forests--and forest economies--fall victim to a plague of insects?

The answers to these questions matter, but they are not easily quantifiable and they do not fluctuate often enough to warrant regular reporting. So we tend to lose sight of their significance and even the direction of the trends.

It's not that gas prices and economic trends don't matter--they certainly do--it's that our society's obsession with new data is blurring our vision. We see only the daily headlines, not the long term slow trends that may have a greater effect on the future for our children, our place, and even ourselves.

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October 04, 2005

March of the Juniper

Juniper_1 For me, there are few sensory pleasures greater than the tangy smell of juniper trees (and especially so when I have a fly rod in hand and an eastern Oregon trout stream is chilling my ankles). But apart from their aroma, junipers are mostly ignored because there is little commercial use for them and they mostly inhabit pretty lonely country.

But we can't ignore juniper much longer. A new study in Oregon by the US Forest Service shows that the native tree is expanding dramatically, quadrupling its range over the last 75 years. Researchers attribute the trees' success to a variety of factors, including incrementally warmer and wetter weather (which favors juniper) and range management techniques like fire suppression (range fires once killed off many juniper seedlings). In many ways, the juniper expansion is a classic example of the unintended consequences of altering ecosystems--the effect may be long-delayed and subtle, but it is often profound.

Juniper expansion turns out to be a bad deal for eastern Oregon's native ecology, including the sage grouse, which depend on certain shrubs and grasses that are getting out-competed. And juniper also soaks up a tremendous amount of water--as much as 30 gallons a day for a single tree--a potentially big problem for both ranchers and ecosystems in an arid region.   

The Forest Service researchers don't mention this, but I believe there is something we can all do about the juniper take-over. Because juniper berries are the principle flavoring agent for gin, it's conceivable that by drinking enough booze we could help arrest the spread of the trees. Pour yourself a gin and tonic tonight--easy on the tonic. You're doing it for the Earth.

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September 28, 2005

Logging Loses in Litigation

As long-time readers of this blog may know, Washington's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is planning to aggressively boost logging in the state's forests.

But yesterday a King County judge blocked the DNR's logging plan on the grounds that it failed to adequately account for endangered species like spotted owls and steelhead. Apart from being a victory for conservationists--whose position was supported by the judge--the ruling is yet more evidence that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) labeling isn't worth the paper it's printed on. (Despite weakening the definition of "old growth," reducing streamside buffers, and ratcheting up logging by 30 percent, the state still won SFI certification.)

For the time being, DNR must revert to its previous logging plan, which gives the state yet another opportunity to pursue meaningful certification--Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) labeling--for at least some of the public's forests. For more on that, here's an op-ed I wrote that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last summer.

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September 26, 2005

The Endangered Act

As if the Endangered Species Act doesn't have enough problems right now. Federal records recently uncovered by reporters at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer show that the government may triple the amount of land where endangered plants and animals are protected not by the strictures of the Act, but instead by controversial Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs).

In the abstract, HCPs sound like a good thing--they allow landowners to work out the details of a conservation program in exchange for a hands-off approach from federal regulators. But in practice, HCPs have proven to be a disastrously ineffective way to protect endangered species. In fact, recent investigative reporting at the P-I found that HCPs are often only loosely based on good science, the success of the plans are neither monitored nor tracked, the HCP program is badly under-funded, and the plans are virtually never enforced. In reality, HCPs can amount to carte blanche for landowners to harm species that are at serious risk of extinction.

So even while the Endangered Species Act is in danger of being emasculated by Congress, its current implementation is becoming ever-less effective. Depressing. Read all about it here.

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September 20, 2005

The $100 Million Beetle

The mountain pine beetle, that scourge of British Columbia's inland forests, has officially reached new heights of infamy. Yesterday, provincial Premier Gordon Campbell called it, "the most significant natural disaster to ever hit British Columbia's forests." The province is planning to spend Can$100 million to stop the estimated 1.13 trillion tree-killing bugs. (Incidentally, that means that pine beetles outnumber people by about a quarter-million to one in BC.)

One ray of hope perhaps, is Blue Pine Products, a Prince George-based manufacturer selling small wood items that showcase the intricate blue streaking of beetle-killed wood. Their products seem mostly too small to have a serious impact on forestry in BC, but it's a start toward finding commercial uses for the beetle trees.

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August 24, 2005

Oops, We Logged It Again

Hot off the presses: the controversial Biscuit Fire salvage logging in the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon has yielded a rather atrocious mistake. US Forest Service officials mis-marked the logging boundaries and accidentally approved 17 acres of cutting (apparently clearcutting) inside the 350-acre Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area, which is supposed to protect--you guessed it--a rare tree and other rare plants.

Salvage logging in the region has been enormously contentious. Interestingly, one element of the controversy centered on who should mark the boundaries of timber sales. In fact, a conservation group won a court judgment to force the Forest Service to mark public timber sales rather than letting loggers do it.

One can only imagine the mistakes the timber industry might make if it were in charge of drawing the boundaries. The Babyfoot Lake mistake was only discovered through the vigilance of the Siskiyou Project, a local environmental group that's watch-dogging the salvage logging.

Among the scars left from the accidental logging in the protected area: a new logging road bulldozed in and 290 stumps, including one from a tree that was 234 years old. Read the full Seattle Times account here.

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August 02, 2005

Financing A Forest

Ponderosa Oregon appears set to lead the way in an innovative approach to protecting forestlands. A new state law allows local governments to form "forest authorities," which can purchase forests using government bonds. The authority retires the bond with the revenue generated by sustainable-yield timber cutting and perhaps even recreation fees. The upshot is that local governments can preserve both timber jobs and forests, rather than losing them to sprawling development. It's not surprising that the first forest authority will be near Bend, where population is booming and development is rampant.

Conservationists in Washington tried the same tactic a few years back when the Evergreen Forest Trust attempted to purchase 100,000 acres of Weyerhauser forest in King County. The attempt ultimately sputtered out because Congress dragged its feet on approving tax-exempt bonds (which are more attractive to investors) for conservation measures. But Oregon's Republican Senator Gordon Smith is going to try again.

The Eugene Register-Guard has the full story.

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August 01, 2005

Unhappy Trails

Resize_of_rotation_of_gothic_basin_111 For many northwesterners, summer means an all-too-brief window to capitalize on the region's natural heritage. For a few months city-dwellers like myself become schizophrenics--living in an apartment during the week and waking up in a sleeping bag on the weekends. Northwesterners have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails and wilderness within a short drive of our cities. In the wild country of the Northwest's mountains, it is still possible to find solitude on high country trails, in alpine lake basins that look like Shangri La, and in ancient dark forests.

But our ability to experience those places is facing a very real threat because many of the best trails to those refuges are going extinct. In some cases, the loss of trails is an especially bitter pill to swallow because there is comparatively ample funding for the roads that lead to those vanishing trails.

In the US Northwest, the vast majority of our precious natural beauty is not managed by northwesterners, but by two federal agencies, the US Forest Service, which operates national forests, and the National Park Service. Both agencies are badly under-funded and short-handed.

In fact,the Forest Service is already beginning to sell off assets. Many national forests lack the resources necessary even to maintain their crumbling infrastructures of campgrounds, forest roads, boat launches, and trails. National forests are increasingly dependent on volunteers and private funding to make up for the severe shortfall of federal dollars.

Here's a case study that hits very close to home for an estimated 5 million northwesterners: the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest--the huge swath of federal land that blankets the west side of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier National Park. Right now, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie's website says:

While it appears that repairs to roads are largely funded and most will eventually be made, the same can not yet be said for the trail system.

Here's why.

In October 2003, an autumn deluge of unheard of proportions swept away large chunks of well-known routes like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Stehekin Valley trails, and many others. In fact, the flood did about $4.5 million in damage just to trails in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, not counting additional havoc in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. (For more on this, read my article that appeared in the Seattle Weekly in May 2004 linking the trail damage to climate change.) 

Even now, in 2005, the National Forest has only about one-tenth of the necessary funding to make the repairs. Groups like Washington Trails Association and The Mountaineers have made heroic efforts to help the National Forest win funding and have volunteered countless hours to help repair the damage. But the fundamental problem is too great to be overcome by volunteers: the forest simply needs more money for trails and the federal government isn't about to supply anywhere near the money required.

But there is plenty of money available for repairing the many forest roads that were damaged by the October floods. (The floods did a number on the roads too, most notoriously the popular Mountain Loop Highway that no longer makes a loop because of washouts near Barlow Pass. Still, road repair is pretty much a sure thing.) The Federal Highway Administration operates a program called the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO, for short) and the National Forest was able to qualify for ERFO funding to repair most of the flood damage.

The problem, of course, is that hikers and other recreationists may be left with roads that lead to trailheads, but no actual trails. This is not just a bizarre hypothetical. The White Chuck River Road is slated for repairs soon, but to my knowledge there are not enough resources to repair the White Chuck Trail that leads to Kennedy Hot Springs, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the shortest route of the several long routes up Glacier Peak, a popular mountaineering destination.

Don't blame local Forest Service officials--they're making the best of incredibly scarce resources. Instead, you can blame federal funding scarcity--and restrictions on existing funding--that hamstrings forests like the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie.

Without trails, recreation in national forests becomes based on either internal combustion or on the strength, skill, and time to navigate large stretches of difficult trail-less country. The latter is a more authentic wilderness experience, I suppose, but certainly not something the whole family can enjoy.

One possible solution is to convert some of the roads, or portions of them, to trails. Olympic National Forest has experimented with this solution with the damaged Dossewallips River Road that once led to trails to Lake Constance and Mount Constance, near Hood Canal. It's controversial to say the least. One the up side: the forest gains a few additional miles of trail and the area's natural resources are arguably better preserved. On the downside: some of the best  destinations in the forest are put out of reach of day hikers and families. (The same thing effectively happened years ago on the gated road to Monte Cristo that is now mainly the province of mountain bikes and hiking boots.)

Settling on the right mix of access roads, good trails, and deep (trail-less) wilderness is not easy. In any mix, however, it's galling to find that there is ample funding for cars, but very little for feet.

There ought to be a large natural constituency for the trails of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. The forest is located within a 70-mile drive of over 3.6 million Washingtonians (and also nearby to 1.5 million British Columbians). No surprise, it's one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country and in recent years it has also become one of the most devoted to trail-based recreation.

It's something of a truism to urge people to contact their representatives in Congress, but that really is one of the best things you can do for trails in the Northwest. Congress controls the purse strings and has the power to fund trail restoration and maintenance. And then when you've done that, hook up with Washington Trails Association or the Mountaineers--they are vocal advocates for muscle-powered recreation on federal land and. They also put their muscles where their mouths are, donating thousands of hours of work to help repair trails.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie is a national gem. Just a short drive from downtown skyscrapers you can find your way into more than 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and even today find plenty of places to be alone with jaw-dropping scenery. If we can't find money to protect our nearest and dearest natural places, is there any hope for the far-flung and less-visited wild places that make the Northwest special?

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