What’s a forest – and its genes – worth?

A friend recently wrote up a plea that our state do a better job at managing its school fund. I couldn’t disagree with his logic since the state is mandated to maximize that fund which depends on timber receipts from the state forests. This part of his argument, however, caught my eye. He wrote that
“[t]he state itself is a poor manager of commercial timberland”
I dug up his email address and wrote him back to expand on that notion. The bad news is that the commercial interests have been even poorer managers of timberland. The story hasn’t gained much traction in the press but that management failure is no secret to the scientific community. The details need an honest airing in a pubic arena as well. Lurking at the center of this management disaster are a set of assumptions that have collapsed completely, bringing into question the model used by the timber industry to manage forest lands. What was once a minor irritant in Christmas tree plantations, the so-called Swiss needle cast – it isn’t Swiss but they first took note of it on imported specimens – has collapsed the growth curve for industrial forestlands in the Coast Range, those with mono-cultured stands of Douglas fir. Now that’s a very broad statement, but the evidence for that collapse is itself very broadly distributed, as can be seen from this map:
Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative - 2013 Aerial Survey

Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative 2013 Aerial Survey

That image was taken from the OSU Dept of Forestry’s Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative website. The industry funded cooperative was formed when the outbreak started to cause a serious dent in revenue forecasts. It’s from the 2013 survey of the disease. The outbreak has grown worse over time as can clearly be seen from the mapped history of those surveys. A more detailed synopsis of the cause for the epidemic can be found on that same website:

Disease is most damaging close to the coast, and severe disease has been associated with several climate and topographic variables, including spring leaf wetness from precipitation and fog, mild temperatures in the winter and spring, and low-elevation valleys.  It is believed that the current epidemic is attributable to a variety of factors, particularly the increase in Douglas-fir plantation acreage in coastal areas that were previously dominated by spruce, hemlock and alder and have environmental and site conditions conducive to disease development.  Much of the current research is focused on understanding the impacts of soil and foliage nutrition on swiss needle cast disease development and severity, assessing disease growth impacts, and modeling and mapping the current and projected distribution of disease. (my emphasis)

…which is undoubtedly why ‘…spruce, hemlock and alder…‘ grew there in the first place. This pattern, let’s call it ecosystemic over-reach, has been repeated on the East side of the state as well. That’s a long story itself, but it also needs airing. You can find some of it here in a paper I wrote almost 20 years ago.

To my mind these two case-studies are symptomatic of a near-complete failure of industrial forestry, something that will, I believe, become even more evident over the timescale at which forest stands develop, on the order of hundreds of years.

What follows is my personal indictment of the timber industry.

It was a mistake to ever work on a margin that had Douglas fir replacing mixed stands. Those stands appeared to ecologically uninformed eyes, something that’s inexcusable for an industry who’s business should be all about ecology,  to be too slow-growing to deliver the expected profit. Convinced they could force those forest lands into new modes of production, they instead birthed a slow-growing disaster born of arrogance and short-term thinking. The idea that stands could be worked at that margin for increased yield by planting those mono-cultures is the core of the problem, and a clear reflection of a terrible business model, one that neglected crucial information. That information was readily available to them, but it came from sources outside their narrow blinkered view of the forest world. Those blinkers are derived directly from that arrogance. That was all too obvious from my first days in Oregon in the late 1970s.

Having worked with biologists in my prior life with the early EPA in Las Vegas, I was quick to comment on a policy that had all but eliminated almost every vestige of the older forest. That forest wasn’t just a show-piece I wrote, it contained the very genetic resources necessary to deal with any future problems – problems of exactly the magnitude presented by Swiss needle cast it turns out. Those were my comments to the Siuslaw NF, asking that those genetic resources be preserved. That’s just an outsider feeding unwanted white noise into the system after all. How about the insiders?

Years ago, one of the Forest Service’s stellar research sivliculturalists wrote a brilliant paper, Nitrogen, Corn and Forest Genetics. He hammered home in no uncertain terms the fallacies behind an agricultural strategy for forest lands and foretold the failure of that strategy, pointing out the near-template like fit of the best adapted seeds to the landscape from which they were gathered.

None of it cut any ice. The political agents of the timber industry were deeply embedded in every advisory board the state had, something I learned first hand as background for my initial foray into the state. They also had the Oregon Congressional delegation, which had been catering to the industry since the earliest days, safely in tow. That insured that any such scientific mumbo-jumbo would be ignored. The industry would simply engineer a new forest, ecology aside. The Forest Service decided to cut just about all of those older forests, that arrogance spreading like a stain across the policy landscape, one which had been carefully prepared to receive it. Private timber land owners did cutover all of their forestlands, leaving them with an empty gene pool from which to rejuvenate those hard hit stands.

Here’s my personal economic mantra: greed is short-term self-interest, morality long-term self-interest. The stark difference between those two emotional polar-opposites, is a simple function of the time and depth we’re willing to invest our planning horizon with. That’s something many economists have somehow lost in both their qualitative and quantitative analyses. It’s something they need to recover if we expect to stick it out for a while, a while that would include that moral future. It’s one that, I might add, would actually have room for all the genetic resources our forests have to offer, the ones we have so casually discarded in our quest for short-term profit.

Sitka Spruce

Sitka spruce in an uncut Oregon coastal forest

And further to the South…

So where else should we look for climatic analogs to the ecosystems of the Western US? Head north, from Antarctica into the Pacific, staying close to the South American coast. To the east, the Andes rise out of Tierra del Fuego, building a very effective barrier to moisture for thousands of  kilometers. Since the earth mirrors the atmospheric circulation on both sides of the equator, this means that the pattern of vegetation – from rainforest, to chapparal, to desert and then into the tropics in North America – repeats in reverse to the South. After the tropical belt comes the Atacama desert, then the Chilean Mattoral, and then the Valdivian rainforest, a twin to its North American counterpart in Cascadia.

Compounding the eerie similarity is the geology. Just as in Cascadia, a subduction zone lies off the coast of Chile, with the Nazca plate diving under the South American, periodically firing off massive earthquakes as it does. Jammed under the earth’s crust as they are, both plates send enormous plumes of melted rock to the surface where they express themselves as chains of spectacular volcanoes, one each for the Americas North and South.

Head to the lee side, and the drop out of the Andes takes you through the transition zone of dry forests and prairies. It’s no great surprise that Ponderosa pine, the iconic forest tree of the interior West, finds a home on degraded range in those borderlands. Travel further and you’re in the Patagonian steppe, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the Great Basin.