Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Finding Compromise in "Logging Jobs vs. Environment" is the Wrong Goal

Senator Wyden has released a new plan for management of Oregon & California Railroad trust lands, a plan that I think is intended to replace, update, or supersede the Northwest Forest Plan that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994 for O&C lands. I'm glad new science is being brought to bear on an old problem, but I think the approach is wrong. I disagree with it's broader objectives, and thus with some of the specific things it tries to do.

Wyden's plan relies on the recent work of two well-regarded scientists, Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin, men who helped craft the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan in the first place. The broad objective is to create a plan whereby these lands can be sustainably logged forever without dramatically sacrificing ecological protections. This is not an unworthy goal. I think we should approach all our resources this way, starting with the question "if we have to use this, how do we make sure we're not using it faster than it replenishes on its own?" But a consistent problem with that idea is that people with a profit-driven interest take an optimistic view of what's sustainable. Fisheries get overharvested because a certain fishery will have a few good years because of factors nobody has any control over, so everyone upwardly revises their idea of what's sustainable, and then our ability to monitor the decline in population lags a few years, so the population crashes in response to the increased harvest and it takes many, many years to recover. The same can happen with forests if managers assume that what's sustainable now will continue to be so five years down the line.

Clear-Cut near the source of the Lewis & Clark River
I'll freely admit, I'm not sure there's anything to doubt in the science of sustainable forestry they're relying on for this plan. The plan has the support of the Pacific Rivers Council and the Wild Salmon Center, solid natural resources protection groups, and it relies on good science, with adaptive management and rigorous scientific review built in. Johnson and Franklin are likely smarter than me, and are certainly more experienced ecologists than myself, and I've only had the opportunity to read a couple of Johnson's academic papers, which I admired for their well-balanced emphasis on both the social and environmental issues raised by forest management, and none of Franklin's. But I think the focus of Wyden's approach to the social matters is misplaced.

I'm always leery of any reduction in natural resource protections. The Sierra Club, Environment Oregon, and Oregon Wild (which I must disclose I  have the pleasure of volunteering for) all disagree with the O&C plan. Narrowing the stream buffers that protect the riparian habitats salmon and so many other species depend on, even if only in specially designated areas, is a worrisome idea. Limiting the ability of activist groups to file lawsuits against logging actions is even more worrisome. Allowing clear-cuts, even in selective "variable retention harvesting" patches intended to mimic the natural variability of a fire-prone habitat mosaic, is not necessarily a great idea when global climate change has thrown natural variability out the window.

Fires get BIG!

Wildfires now regularly reach intensities never seen before. As annual snow pack decreases due to changes in global climate, there's less spring melt to feed streams and wet forests, so forests that haven't been logged in some time get more dry and more prone to fire. That's basic fact right now, and I could do a whole blog post just about that. But selective thinning for fuel load reduction is different than trying to create a perpetual, sustainable harvest regime based on what we know of past conditions, in an era when past conditions don't mean anything. We don't know what the wildfire regime is going to look like in five years, we don't know just how habitats and species will change and migrate over the next decade independent of all our best efforts to manage and control. There's an argument to be made that we should use logging to try to artificially force forests to match past natural conditions, but the system is not stable, so stable harvest is not really going to be possible. Fires have been getting bigger and more out of control every year, and we need to protect what we've got, not continue to harvest based on what the fire regime was like in the past.

It's the wrong kind of sustainability for our present situation. Right now, given climate change, I think conservation is a higher priority than smarter resource extraction for (mostly) private profit. Adaptive management of lands conserved for their own sake is the way to go, and harvest should be allowed to happen as part of that management, not as the main goal of that management. We have to consider whether our public natural resources should even be allowed to be extracted for private profit. Apparently the answer everyone comes to these days is yes, but should it be?

The lean towards increased logging comes from the idea that logging creates jobs, but that idea is outdated and no longer accurate. In Lincoln County, timber harvest more than doubled from 2009 to 2012, but employment went down. In Lane County, there was a 75% increase in harvest over the same period, but a 14% decrease in wood products manufacturing jobs. Why the disconnect? Because logging in Oregon is a truly extractive industry, and fully a third of the trees harvested from our forests get exported as logs or as chips for use elsewhere. The logs get extracted from our public lands and shipped to Asian markets, the processing and manufacturing jobs get extracted by increased mechanization and shipping of raw materials overseas to support manufacturing jobs in places where labor is cheaper and tax breaks are higher, and the profits get extracted by owners. Logging just doesn't create jobs like it used to, doesn't benefit Oregon's economy like it used to, and we waste obscene amounts of money subsidizing the practice.

In fact, there's reason to believe the reduction in forest harvesting was not such a bad thing. Want to know what happened from 1988 to 1996, when harvests in the Pacific Northwest fell most precipitously? ECONorthwest reported, in a document titled "The Sky Did NOT Fall: The Pacific Northwest's Response to Logging Reductions," that while harvests fell 86% on federal lands and 47% overall in that time, yes, jobs in the lumber-and-wood-products industry fell 22%. But total employment, reflecting a much larger population than just the lumber-and-wood-products subset, increased 27%.

ECONorthwest proposed two main causes for this, with many contributing factors. Cause one: Logging's importance to the economy had already diminished by a good deal. This is because of the timber industry cutting jobs and wages in union-busting tactics in the 1980's, before the Northwest Forest Plan was even in place. By 1990, the timber industry was only 3.1% of the jobs in the region, and decades of overharvesting had the resulted in predictions that there would be a crash in timber production in the 1990's anyway. It wasn't all about the spotted owl, people.

Cause two:  Un-logged forests became more important to the economy, and this here's the not-so-obvious part. Do you really think Intel or Nike would want to be in Oregon if their headquarters were surrounded by clearcut wastelands and brown rivers that couldn't support any form of recreation, much less salmon? If their employees didn't want to be here, they wouldn't be here. Logging is a messy business that leaves a lot of cleanup and restoration work for others to take care of, it damages the land and the water and the species that rely on a healthy wild ecology, and the fact is, people want to live near beautiful forests. Other jobs came and more than replaced those lost.

I get that rural counties used to relying on the tax income from the logging industry, and, later, on compensatory payments from the federal government to offset the economic damage of forced reductions in logging, are hurting. Services are being cut, county governments are unable to govern, and people in the government are losing their jobs. Law enforcement has been devastated by the lack of funds, and people are suffering. But another point to note in all this is that many of these counties have dramatically lower property taxes than the rest of the state, rates they were able to maintain because they got funds through logging, and the populations of these counties keep voting against raising the property tax. As one article notes:
Voters in Lane and other timber-dependent counties have been resistant to raising property taxes in part because they're accustomed to the feds picking up most of the cost of county services and giving them low tax rates. Josephine County residents pay 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for county operations, the lowest rate in the state. Curry County follows just behind at 60 cents and Lane County's rate is $1.28, the seventh lowest. In comparison, Multnomah County's rate is $4.34.
There are better ways to stimulate local economies than logging, even if that's been their traditional driver. A recent study found that National Wildlife Refuges are economic engines all their own, and pumped $2.4 billion into the economy, supported more than 35,000 jobs and produced $792.7 million in job income for the people who engage in, facilitate, and manufacture products that allow outdoor recreational activities. For every $1 appropriated to the refuge system in Fiscal Year 2011, the refuges contributed $4.87 in total economic output. Not too shabby an investment.

I'm not suggesting that converting all these lands to wildlife refuges would solve all the county problems, but I am suggesting that it's time to stop blaming the owl, the murrelet, and the salmon. It's time to stop pointing the finger at laws designed to benefit us all, which protect the natural resources that make our state a beautiful place full of wonders that people travel from around the world to see. If this is about jobs, put up a jobs bill. If this is about county funding, find another way: create incentives for companies to move there, earmark a few federal projects to take place in those counties and stimulate things that way, maybe even make the landowners of those counties pay more in taxes for the services they need.

There's a lot to like in Wyden's bill (summarized here). It takes a reasonable approach that balances a perceived human socioeconomic need with environmental protections. If there was enough data to support the idea that increasing timber harvests would solve the problem, I'd be all for it. But there isn't, and I didn't see anything in my reading on the matter to suggest anyone was seriously proposing we keep some proportion of the logs in Oregon until they're processed into finished products or anything that would really create jobs. What we need right now is more conservation, and logging-industry lobbyists shouldn't be able to convince anyone that the problem will be solved if only a few profiteers at the top can get a compromise on natural resources protections and use low-wage jobs to ship raw materials overseas and then sell a finished product back to the Americans they just deprived of real employment opportunities. That tactic is a different kind of short-sighted, however many times the word "sustainable"appears in the plan.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Spring/Summer Hike: Larch Mountain

Early this year, an old D&D buddy of mine (Yes, D&D. Shut up.) contacted me about hiking Mt. Whitney, and asked if I'd like to join. I was excited, and immediately told him yes. Afterward, it dawned on me that it might be a kind of big undertaking, and I realized I was going to have to do a lot of training, ideally with my friend Benji, who agreed to be my buddy-system pairing for the Mt. Whitney hike. This blog post is just gonna be a little about one of those hikes we did as training, with some photos, and a little bit of additional information thrown in for good measure as we go along.

Our first hike was up Larch Mountain. For those of you who don't know, Larch Mountain is just a little ways east of Portland, and the summit can be reached from a trail that starts at beautiful Multnomah Falls, which really is a tourist destination all its own. It's one of the many waterfalls that cascades down the cliffs of the Columbia Gorge in this region, and is worth visiting in every season. Even if you're not up for the hike up the mountain, even if you're not up for the hike just to see the top of the falls, if you're ever gonna visit Portland, you should go see Multnomah Falls, check out the interpretive center and learn a little about the history of the region, have some ice cream and coffee, maybe even enjoy the restaurant. In any case, the hike up the mountain begins with a hike up those cliffs.

At the top you can see a great view of quite a few peaks in the region (Rainier, Adams, St Helens, Hood and Jefferson). Interestingly, there are no larch trees on Larch Mountain. It just got that name because the old-time loggers who were the first Europeans to climb it confused the noble-fir for larch, which only grows east of the Cascades. There's still a lot of beautiful old-growth forest up there, which is surprising for a place so close to Portland and its logging history. Larch Mountain also adjoins the Bull Run watershed, which supplies Portland's drinking water, and after years of fighting, Oregon Wild and other groups managed in 2009 to achieve protections for the Larch Mountain area as part of the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness. A lovely set of maps of that achievement can be viewed here.

We did it as an out-and-back trip, though there are options for loops that aren't much longer, and if you just want to see the view from the top, you can simply drive to the upper trailhead, just a short walk from the summit. A couple experienced hikers shouldn't have too much a problem with this hike . . . but we were not experienced hikers. First of all, we were woefully underprovisioned. We went up a mountain with full bellies, tons of water, and a couple oranges. Sweet jeebus, we were loopy on the way down. Our blood sugar was demolished. There are a couple spots where you have to cross picturesque streams using even more picturesque log-bridges with a handrail on only one side, and on the trip down the mountain we were starting to get dizzy, so those bridges were mighty menacing. Second, we probably shouldn't have tried to do this monster hike as our first trip out. It's about 14 miles on your feet, and takes most of a day to complete. Our joints were really achy the next day.

However, we DID get some beautiful pictures.

One of those many, picturesque streams we crossed.

Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
VICTORY! (View from the summit, Mt. Hood in the background)