Feel-good report on Gifford Pinchot premature

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The second paragraph of the article in the Oct. 23 edition of the Columbian, concerning the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, rings true: “The numbers tell the story.” However, many of us would say that the story is a bit different.

First, $1 million in “special forest products” does not “rival” timber sales of $2.5 million to $3 million. Rather, it points out the fact that, even under current suppression of timber sales, timber is the wealth of the forest. In fact, there are more than 80,000 acres of plantations on the Gifford Pinchot that are between 42 and 71 years old. These stands contain well over 10,000 board feet of potential lumber per acre of commercially viable timber that needs to be cut in order to improve forest health and species diversity via thinning (selective) harvest.

That means there are over 800 million board feet of commercial thinning lumber available, with a current “stump” value of $200 million. Sales of 25 million board feet in 2011 represents a rate of harvest that will take more than 30 years to restore these former clear-cuts that were burned over, fertilized, and replanted.

Then, over the next decade, another 100,000 acres of plantations will reach the 40 to 49 year-old age range, providing an additional 1 billion board feet of potential commercial thinning. In the second decade from now, there will be another 100,000 acres reaching commercial thinning stage, with an additional 1 billion board feet.

Plantation thinning

The thinning of plantations is a tool for optimization of forest health and is utilized to accelerate old-growth development in plantations in the Late Successional Reserve land allocation (1995 Northwest Forest Plan). In the ‘old days’ such plantations were ‘precommercially thinned’ to reduce the density of the initial planting. The initial growth spurts of the young trees could be maintained by reducing competition for water, sunlight, and soil nutrients. Since timber harvest has been virtually eliminated, there have been no timber receipts to pay for this phase of plantation maintenance. Now we have numerous overcrowded stands with lower growth rates, less diverse undergrowth, greater susceptibility to insect attack, loss of wildlife habitat and greater fuel loading.

Plantation thinning alone, however, ignores the main purpose of the Matrix land allocation, which is dedicated primarily to timber production. There are some restrictions and some rules to be followed, but the Northwest Forest Plan envisioned a harvest target of 62 million board feet per year from Matrix lands alone. There are many reasons to harvest there in a ‘conventional’ manner, including maintenance of meadow habitat (deer, elk, bluebird, huckleberry), fuels reduction, jobs, wood products, and accelerated carbon sequestration (young forests are carbon sinks; old forests are more or less carbon neutral).

We agree with the Gifford Pinchot Task Force that plantation thinning is the “low-hanging fruit.” Our forested counties and the local timber industry would be highly grateful for a thinning target of 100 million board feet per year for the next 25 years, which is approximately what is needed for ‘catch-up’ with the current needs for plantation thinning, plus a sustainable balance with the maturing plantations.

Beyond the timber data, there was a kind of optimism about the condition and treatment of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in the Columbian article that is unwarranted. Drastic road decommissioning techniques, speculative and expensive river stabilization schemes, gradual elimination of dispersed camping sites, purposeful reduction of the few venues for off-road vehicle use and of grazing opportunities — all of these make large segments of the public hostile to the Forest Service.

We do not want to convey the impression that the Gifford Pinchot is a lost cause. There are many intelligent, hard-working employees who are trying to reorient the forest toward sustainable resource management as a major goal, including the forest supervisor, Janine Clayton.

We simply believe, however, that a feel-good report is a little premature.

Paul Spencer, of Stevenson, is secretary of the Gifford Pinchot Accountability Group.