Private timberland owners face a long road to recovery in western Oregon as they look to replant millions of burned trees following the calamitous post-Labor Day wildfires.
It will take decades before the trees are ready to harvest. Meanwhile, land managers are bracing for seedling and labor shortages based on the widespread scale of the devastation.
More than 1 million acres were scorched across Oregon during the 2020 fire season, including 374,353 acres of private industrial and non-industrial land, according to the state Department of Forestry.
The Oregon Forest and Industries Council, a trade group representing forestland owners and wood product manufacturers, estimates the wildfires may have killed up to 15 billion board-feet of timber — enough to build 1 million homes.
“Our communities are reeling in the aftermath of the fires,” said Seth Barnes, director of forest policy for OFIC. “We’re mourning with them, but it’s our responsibility to start thinking right away about what comes next.”
Reforestation after timber harvest is required by the Oregon Forest Practices Act. Crews typically plant about 40 million seedlings each year, at an average cost of $335 per acre.
Considering the size and scale of this year’s wildfires, OFIC anticipates reforestation will require more than 100 million seedlings, not including federally owned land.
That puts a pinch on companies such as Rayonier Inc., which owns or leases 2.7 million acres of private timberland across the U.S. and New Zealand, including 507,000 acres in Oregon and Washington. Rayonier had 9,000 acres of timberland it manages burn in the Beachie Creek Fire that ripped through the Santiam Canyon east of Salem, and 1,000 acres in the Slater Fire in southwest Oregon.
Bill Monahan, director of Western forest resources for Rayonier, said crews are still assessing the extent of the damage, but it appears some younger tree stands were wiped out entirely.
“In some places, it almost looks like a hurricane hit it,” Monahan said. “We’ve been cautious getting out there and evaluating. There are just some really dangerous areas.”
Once crews have a chance to better survey the properties, Monahan said they will know which logs can still be salvaged and sold to a mill, and how much needs to be replanted.
Tom Fox, Rayonier’s vice president of research, productivity and sustainability, said the company typically plants between 4 million and 5 million seedlings each year. However, if the entire 10,000 acres of burned forests had to be replanted, he said that would require an additional 4.5 million seedlings, essentially adding another full year’s worth of work.
With 1 million total acres burned, Fox said he expects a huge increase in demand across the board.
“There won’t be enough seedlings to go around for the first few years,” Fox said. “It may take quite a while to get all the seedlings produced, and get them all planted. That’s an issue we’ll have to resolve and work with our nurseries to get as many trees as we can.”
Just to grow a Douglas fir seedling at the nursery takes about two years before it is ready to be planted. Trees are then harvested on a 50-year life cycle.
The other issue, Monahan said, will be finding enough workers to take on the extraordinary task. Logging companies were also hit hard by the firestorm, losing more than 100 pieces of equipment that range anywhere from $200,000 to $1.5 million a piece.
“There is going to be a shortage of loggers who can help with getting down these damaged trees and helping us restore the properties,” Monahan said. “It could be three years, it could be five years. We’re just going to have to see how long it takes.”
Sara Duncan, a spokeswoman for OFIC, said the need is already urgent. As heavy winter rains loom, Duncan said landowners are planting whatever they can into the blackened ground and laying down straw to prevent further soil erosion and possible landslides.
OFIC is also worried about small woodland owners who don’t have the same resources at their disposal to do such extensive reforestation, Duncan said. She suggested smaller landowners could work together, as a sort of co-op, to reach out and place larger orders for seedlings with nurseries.
“I know there is a concern in the industry right now about our non-industrial partners,” Duncan said. “They’re going to struggle.”