Forester Norm Johnson was enticed by “a career that lets me wander around the woods,” but his time is often spent in the thicket of controversy.
During his three decades as a forestry professor at Oregon State University, Johnson has shaped key federal forest policies while drawing fire from environmentalists and the timber industry.
“He’s had a real imprint on forest management out here,” said Josh Laughlin, executive director of the Cascadia Wildlands environmental group.
His role in forming the Northwest Forest Plan, which established a conservation and harvest regime for federal lands in 1994, is often cited as a signature achievement.
Making an impact in such a contentious field is impossible without ruffling a few feathers, so Johnson is by now accustomed to criticism.
He nonetheless seems taken aback by the recent rancor surrounding his advocacy for increasing “early seral” conditions in federal forests.
“Boy, have I caught hell over this,” he said.
The proposition is currently facing an onslaught of opposition from environmentalists who claim that it marks a return to clear-cutting mature stands. The forest products industry also isn’t enthusiastic about the idea, as it delays the production of harvestable timber.
Despite the tough reception, Johnson makes no apologies for the concept.
“Am I sorry we’re doing this? No. Will we keep going? Yes,” he said.
When moist forests in the Northwest were still untouched by the descendants of European settlers, it was natural for wildfires to create openings in the canopy, he said.
Before being reclaimed by trees, these sunny clearings were initially populated by shrubs and other plants that produce flowers, fruits and seeds for wildlife to eat.
“It’s a tremendous food source for an amazing variety of creatures,” Johnson said. “It’s really in a lot of ways the most biologically diverse stage in a forest.”
At this point, though, such early seral habitat is actually scarcer than old growth in federal forests, which are dominated by fairly uniform stands of evenly aged trees, he said.
Managers with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are currently focused on thinning projects to achieve a more complex structure associated with “late successional” forests.
Inevitably, though, federal forests will run out of areas suitable for commercial thinning, putting the USFS and BLM on a trajectory of further declines in timber volume, Johnson said.
In the minds of Johnson and his research collaborator, University of Oregon ecology professor Jerry Franklin, the solution to these problems is to emulate natural disturbances.
Their recommendation to federal forest managers is for a “variable retention harvest” in which patches of forest are logged and left treeless for years, generating timber while clearing the way for early seral habitat.
“That’s the part that really got us into hot water,” Johnson said. “We’ve made everyone mad.”
Allowing parcels to be overcome with shrubs is considered a “regeneration failure” by industry-oriented foresters, while some environmentalists think the strategy shows Johnson has “gone over to the dark side,” he said.
The blowback from environmentalists suggests that Johnson and Franklin have tried to deal with a “social science element” that they’re not well-equipped to handle, said Scott Horngren, an attorney with the American Forest Resource Council timber industry group.
Only a small portion of federal lands can be logged, so the decision to turn such areas into “brush fields” is questionable, he said. “You ought to be managing that for timber production.”
From the environmental perspective, the timing of the early seral strategy is dubious in light of the pressure on federal lands to produce timber revenues in rural areas.
“It gained a lot of prominence as western Oregon counties’ financial security was more and more unknown,” said Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands.
There is a shortage of complex early seral habitat, but it would be better restored by allowing some forest fires to burn and avoiding salvage logging, said Andy Kerr, former executive director of the Oregon Wild environmental group.
In Kerr’s view, Johnson’s strategy is overly influenced by economic considerations. “It’s driven more by getting logs out than by what the forest needs,” he said.
Though they have disparate views of his work, timber and environmental groups can agree on one thing: Johnson has played a pivotal position in the longstanding debate over federal forests.
“He’s got the ear of some important people,” said Horngren.
When Johnson was studying forestry in the 1960s, critical environmental laws hadn’t yet been passed and conflicts over forest management were still bubbling below the surface.
By the time he signed on as a forestry professor in 1985, the issue was coming to the forefront.
“I realized Oregon was in the middle of a major shift in how federal forests are managed, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
Johnson developed a computer model called 4-Plan that the Forest Service adopted to calculate sustainable harvest levels in national forests.
The formula was based on the volume of growing timber needed to replace stands that were cut, but over time it became apparent that other considerations — such as rare species and water quality — were gaining in political importance.
Johnson and several other scientists were recruited by members of Congress to study these issues, which eventually led to his participation in a group that designed the Northwest Forest Plan.
Lawmakers and federal managers have since continued to depend on his expertise when crafting timber projects such as the White Castle project near Myrtle Creek, Ore., which is considered a test case for the early seral strategy. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the project and a federal judge recently agreed it was approved unlawfully.
Johnson continues to stir up controversy, but the overall thrust of his ideas has nonetheless moved forestry forward, said Kerr. “The forests are better off because of Norm Johnson’s decades of work.”
This article was first published on March 20, 2015.
Occupation: Forestry professor at Oregon State University
Hometown: Corvallis, Ore.
Education: Bachelor of science in forestry from the University of California-Berkleley in 1965, Ph.D. in forest management and economics from Oregon State University in 1973
Family: Wife, Debbie, and four grown children