As a career forester and near daily observer of forest management plans and their physical application for more than 45 years, I have seen the results of both natural events and management’s planned activities in our public forests.
It is my intent to explore in this article one part of the Northwest Forest Plan and comment on the apparent outcome and trajectory of the decisions and actions of management and the concurrent natural processes.
One of the decisions that came out of the Northwest Forest Plan are designated areas called Late Successional Reserves. The goal was to restore the function and appearance of older natural forests that would be similar to those prior to the arrival of settlers in the Pacific Northwest. It has been a quarter century since the plan was initiated and it is time to see if it is working as anticipated.
One assumption of those who wrote the plan seems to be that less manipulation or no manipulation (logging) would, over time, restore the desired function and appearance of old-growth forests. This included not harvesting older plants and trees and allowing the processes of nature to make things happen with as little manipulation by management as possible, thereby allowing natural functions to be re-established and accomplish the desired results.
The application of this assumption has been further complicated by a series of delays and inactivity associated with an exceedingly complex and tedious set of rules, protests, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits.
Meanwhile, with little or no manipulation, the natural processes have continued, especially in the Tiller District of the Umpqua National Forest with the combination of regular and intense lightning caused fires and the unrelenting accumulation of biomass after those fires.
The application of the assumption also ignored the pre-existing unnatural build-up of biomass due to the fire exclusion efforts of the previous century.
Those burned areas are now populated with mostly old heavy snags and downed logs with a tall layer of brush and dead grasses. This situation is not what early explorers found on a large scale in those pre-settlement times.
For about 100 years prior to the NW Forest Plan, fires were excluded from the forest, creating an unnatural accumulation of flammable biomass. In a pre-settlement forest, the fires would have been generally much smaller and much less intense since fires intentionally set by Native Americans or by lightning, regularly reduced the accumulated biomass.
The assumption that letting nature take its course will achieve the goal of restored function is ludicrous. There must be some form of transitional fuel reduction to correct the fire exclusion result before allowing nature to take its course. This was not foreseen nor addressed at the appropriate scale by the NW Forest Plan.
Today we face a situation that will become increasingly worse without prompt and large-scale action to reduce the intensity of the inevitable next fire. The outcome will be an unnaturally intense burn sending smoke and ash into the atmosphere, impacting the local communities. The prolonged heat and intensity of the burn will damage the soils. High intensity burns remove carbon and biological function from the surface layer of the soil increasing runoff and erosion leading to higher stream temperatures and sedimentation.
All previous forest plans have had a requirement for re-examination and modification of the plans on about a 10-year cycle. This requirement has not been met since the NW Forest Plan was implemented 25 years ago.
It is time to formally examine the plan, evaluate the trajectory of the impacted forests and take action to either replace the NW Forest Plan or fix it.