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Plans for an Ailing Forest Include Logging, and Some Are Suspicious

Plans for an Ailing Forest Include Logging, and Some Are Suspicious


Across a patch of the Pacific Northwest, one of North America’s most important tree species is dying at an alarming rate. This spring, as in the past several years, the needles on Douglas firs are yellowing, turning red and then dropping to the ground in forests across southwestern Oregon.

Experts blame a combination of factors, including insect attacks, drought and increased temperatures caused by climate change. Decades of fire suppression have exacerbated problems by disrupting the natural balance of ecosystems.

“The droughts and heat and climate change are killing trees widely, and there’s no clear way to put that genie back in the bottle,” said Rob Jackson, an ecologist at the Doerr School of Sustainability at Stanford University who is researching the ways climate change affects forests and grasslands. “We are priming our forests to die.”

The crisis in Oregon shows the critical importance of forest management as climate change alters the natural world. Foresters say that, in many cases, they need to cut down Douglas firs, whether dead or alive, in order to minimize wildfire risk, promote forest health and help ecosystems adapt to the shifting climate. Their plans include selling some salvageable timber.

But those plans have touched a raw nerve with some environmentalists, who distrust government agencies and accuse them of favoring logging over conservation.

“I understand why environmental groups are suspicious, and they should be,” said Mindy Crandall, an associate professor of forest policy at Oregon State University. The federal agencies “didn’t listen to society for a little bit too long.”

The distrust exemplifies a challenge: How do those agencies, which control much of the land in the Western half of the country, navigate competing mandates for conservation, resource extraction and fire safety as forest health declines across the West?

Douglas firs are a keystone species for the region’s enormous, ecologically diverse forests, critical to sustaining a wide range of plant and animal life. They are also one of the most important timber trees in the country, used widely for home construction and as Christmas trees.

Across southwestern Oregon, more of the species died from 2015 to 2019 than in the previous 40 years combined. The deaths, though concentrated in regions at the lower end of the elevation and rainfall range for Douglas firs, have spread since 2020: While less than 5,000 acres of land in the state exhibited tree death in 2021, that number rose to more than 350,000 acres in 2022.

This year, the Biden administration formally strengthened the Bureau of Land Management’s conservation authority, giving the agency more latitude to prioritize environmental concerns in concert with its other mandates. And experts, including Dr. Crandall, said the bureau and other federal agencies had become more evenhanded and clearly concerned with climate change over the last several decades.

But environmental groups still harbor long-held suspicions from nearly a century of government-approved forest clear cuts.

Nathan Gehres grew up in the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon in the 1980s. At the time, the region was torn apart in a battle over conservation, known locally as the Timber Wars, when environmentalists fought to limit logging projects sponsored by the United States Forest Service and the B.L.M.

“I know people who call them the Bureau of Lumber and Mining,” said Mr. Gehres, who now works at the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, a nonprofit group that tries to develop consensus solutions for natural resource management. “They’ve made mistakes in the past, and I think there’s hardly any government agency that hasn’t made mistakes in the past. But also, three-quarters of the Applegate Valley is federal land. And so, they are an extremely important partner.”

The B.L.M. is proposing a multiyear project called the Strategic Operations for Safety plan, known as S.O.S., to log both living and dead trees. The trees are spread across about 5,000 acres of land the agency manages in the Applegate Valley region that officials say are most likely to present safety risks during wildfires.

Because it can be very expensive to remove only dead trees, the living trees will most likely be sold as timber, “paying their way” out of the forest, said Elizabeth Burghard, the bureau’s district manager.

The B.L.M. is trying community outreach. Ms. Burghard’s team recently invited residents on a field trip to view the dying trees in an effort to show the community the extent of the crisis, alleviate skepticism and to persuade locals of the urgency of the problem.

Luke Ruediger, a resident of the region and the conservation director for the Klamath Forest Alliance environmental group, attended that field trip and said he tried to keep an open mind about the B.L.M.’s intentions. But while he was struck by the forest’s declining health, he said he remained concerned that the agency might manipulate the situation to justify selling more wood for commercial purposes.

Mr. Ruediger acknowledged that it was necessary to address the fire danger in the area. “But there’s this history of heavy forest management here,” he said. “There’s kind of a history of bias toward the timber industry.”

Dominick DellaSala, the chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a forest protection advocacy organization, has visited the forests with Mr. Ruediger to witness the Douglas fir die-off and also said he remained suspicious about the agency’s motivation. “What the agencies will do, they’ll cherry pick the science to fit the desired outcome,” he said.

“You’ve got to tackle climate change, because that’s a lot of what’s driving this,” Dr. DellaSala added. “And you’ve got to reduce the pressures on forests through these kinds of logging events.”

Representatives for the Bureau of Land Management said that the S.O.S. plan was aimed directly at increasing safety, especially for firefighters. And based on 15 years of monitoring interventions, the agency is confident that its plans can be successful, said Jena Volpe, a fire ecologist with the bureau.

“When the B.L.M. does commercial timber sales, our primary objective is forest health, and the economic value of the trees is a byproduct of that,” said Kyle Sullivan, a spokesman for the bureau’s district office in Medford, Ore. “That is something that a lot of the public doesn’t necessarily understand. Our commercial timber sales really are aimed at forest health.”

Researchers in Oregon and across the country stressed that the B.L.M. and other landowners need to manage the Douglas fir decline. It’s not just the B.L.M. dealing with trees in crisis. The city of Ashland, Ore., also has operations underway to remove the dead and dying Douglas firs to manage public safety risk and try to improve forest health.

As forests become less healthy, researchers say, leaving them undisturbed will in many cases make them more prone to severe wildfires and more vulnerable to drought stress and disease.

Instead, managing them to increase safety, improve climate resilience and even create sustainable forms of extraction will be increasingly important. That can mean thinning to lower tree density in a given area, removing dead trees or planting species that are more resilient in a hotter climate.

Though it might seem intuitive to remove human involvement and allow the forest to restore some form of equilibrium, researchers said that, after centuries of human intervention, the forests cannot actually course-correct on their own.

“There’s a real need to reduce the density of trees,” Dr. Crandall of Oregon State said. “We have tinkered so much with the natural system in the last 150 years, mostly through fire suppression, that the forest is just completely out of whack.”

But getting there will be a challenge for federal agencies, said Rachael Hamby, the policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation group.

“They have to try to make everyone happy, and then they end up making no one happy,” she said.



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