Conservation Column: Oregon Forests Promote Planetary Health

Good reasons to conserve the forests always include concern for the welfare of birds and other living beings. But that’s just the beginning. Two recent scientific reports highlight important roles that birds play in the world. And birds need healthy forests.

The first report (Science, 2018) warns that a warming climate will mean a significant increase in losses of major food crops to insect pests. Increased temperatures mean more insects, resulting in greater crop losses. The losses for wheat, an important Oregon crop, will increase 46 percent for each rise of 2 degrees Celsius. A second report (The Science of Nature, 2018) documents the importance of birds in controlling insect populations—insectivorous birds consume between 400 and 500 million tons of insects per year. Forest-dwelling birds consume around 75 per cent of that total. So it makes sense to conserve bird habitat, due to the vital role of birds in the food web (including insect control), as well as for their pollination prowess and seed dispersing skills.

Nonetheless, the current administration has proposed a blanket increase in logging on public lands. For eastern Oregon forests, a decision was just released on the proposed Blue Mountains Forest Management Plan. The Blue Mountains Forest Plan replaces 25-year-old plans for the management of eastern Oregon’s forests, the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, covering nearly 5.5 million acres. That’s about one-third of Oregon’s public forest lands. Several alternatives were proposed to provide guidance on managing these national forests including one, alternative C, that supported natural ecological processes with less logging, stricter water protections, and more wilderness areas. This alternative was not chosen. The one that was selected, Alternative E-Modified, is meant to be a compromise of varying interests. Unfortunately, that means it is weak on recreation, wildlife protection, carbon storage, and sustaining remaining ancient forests, but it embraces outdated practices such as logging and grazing. Under the plan, the timber sale program quantity will increase by 104 million board feet, more than double the existing amount of logging. The plan additionally calls for thinning up to 33 percent of dry-upland forest types. Previously, older and most fire-resistant large-diameter trees were firmly protected, but now this is just a suggestion. Several loopholes in the plan would permit logging of old growth and mature trees. Often this is done under the guise of “addressing management of fuels and fire risk,” which translates as more logging. Other concerns include a narrower width of protection in riparian corridors, and the maintenance of grazing allotments. This includes currently vacant plots, which would result in a functional increase in the amount of grazing on public lands. Taken together, the end result will be elimination of wildlife and fish habitat and degradation of soils and water quality.

The proposal also falls short on proposing Wilderness Protection in these beautiful and wilderness designation-eligible forests. The recommendation to Congress for wilderness allocations is approximately 1.4 percent of the three National Forests —about 20,000 acres less than what was proposed in the draft environmental impact statement. For several reasons, this is a missed opportunity with long term repercussions. Once extractive industries are allowed access to these public lands, they will no longer meet the criteria for wilderness designation.

To share your concerns about this management plan for our state’s eastern forests, Oregon Wild has an action alert with a sign-on letter here: https://oregonwild.org/