News that the Oregon Department of Forestry's budget is in the weeds for the next two to four years comes as no surprise. But it invites longer-term thinking about how we manage natural assets in the Pacific Northwest.
At the same time the chainsaws fall silent in the Clatsop State Forest, Weyerhaeuser and other private timberland owners are also all dressed up with no place to go. With the nation's housing market on life support following five years of runaway speculative building, some of America's best workers have been idled. For example, Weyerhaeuser announced this week that it is laying off 50 of its 157-person workforce in Raymond, Wash., and its mills there and in Warrenton have seen periodic shutdowns for months.
This crisis brightly illuminates the flaws in forest stewardship. Here and worldwide, for too long forests have been managed for short-term corporate profits and governmental revenues.
As financial regulators stood by or actively facilitated the monstrous housing bubble, forests were felled to provide the raw materials. Professional foresters are a big step up from the irresponsible financiers on Wall Street, but they still fell victim to some of the same thought patterns when it comes to asset management.
There is a troubling mismatch between the pace at which forests mature and the rate at which they are logged. Fifty-year harvest rotations dwindled to 40 and have been pegged at as little as 35 in recent years. That is demanding a lot from soils and watersheds.
Because of calls from local communities for revenues and employment, even in public forests there is constant pressure to step up harvests.
Timber towns are economically whipsawed, unable to count on consistency from one year to the next. They are treated little better than third-world colonies that ship their assets out for the enjoyment of the wealthy in faraway locales.
Eventually, equilibrium will return to the supply and demand for forest products. But because of continuing corporate consolidation, mechanization and other systemic factors, forest jobs and revenues may not regain even the already-depleted levels of two or three years ago.
It's vital that citizens and policymakers realize that a fundamental transformation is demanded in what we expect from forests and how we derive benefits from them.
The Department of Forestry is smart to begin aggressively applying for federal grants to help mitigate its 30 to 35 percent budget shortfall. About $5 million in stimulus funds may go toward land restoration projects and reducing the build-up of excess wood that can feed forest fires. Such projects will set the stage for healthier forests. A meaningful part of the carbon tax proceeds envisioned by the Obama administration deserves to be spent on habitat work in American forests.
We need a much longer and more deliberate planning horizon for the woods, one that places explicit financial value on their role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere, purifying water and a host of other essential functions. Forests must no longer be managed solely to maximize financial returns in the current fiscal year for shareholders, whether those shareholders own corporate stock or serve on county commissions.