Forestry for the Future

The day starts early for forester Jim Villeponteaux. Long before sunrise, he piles chainsaws, pruning saws, propane torches, and other tools into a 1985 Chevy Suburban nicknamed the “crummy.” Villeponteaux sets off for a property an hour away, stopping along the way to pick up three or four other team members hired by the Salmon River Restoration Council, a non-profit forestry group run out of Sawyers Bar, California. At dawn they arrive at a privately owned forest adjoining Klamath National Forest, which occupies nearly all the Salmon River Basin just below the Oregon border. As they unload the tools, a couple more crew members arrive. Over the course of the day, the team will clear decades’ worth of undergrowth material that threatens to turn any small fire into a raging conflagration.
“We put on our hard hats and our boots; the people running chainsaws wear chaps,” says Villeponteaux. “We have a specific time window. For spotted owl protection, we can’t run chainsaws from February 1 to July 31.”
Villeponteaux and his crew selectively cut down most of the highly flammable species such as small live oaks and conifers, while leaving more of the fire-resistant ones such as madrone — but take nothing larger than eight inches in diameter. Most of the Salmon River woodlands are too remote to haul materials away, so the team disposes of unusable detritus on site. They leave some for the landowners and then grind some up in a chipper and spread the chips out. Other materials are burned  in small, scattered piles, starting as early in the day as possible before winds pick up and make burning hazardous. The crew watches each fire until it burns out, then spreads the ashes to nourish the soil. They may come back later to plant native grass seeds in the cooled ashes. At the end of the day, the workers load the tools in the “crummy” and head home.
“I think this is important work,” says Villeponteaux. “When I came to the area, I looked at what was happening with fire exclusion and suppression. What I saw was that the system is way out of whack. Fire has to be brought back into the system. Also, this area is very economically depressed, so I believe in hiring local people to carry out the restoration.”
This is not what most people envision when chainsaws invade the nation’s forests. A century of treating trees like cash crops has left forests in dire straits: watersheds destroyed, habitats disrupted, and forests themselves stripped of natural defenses against wildfires. But across the country, small communities, trying to survive the pendulum swings of forestry policy and logging fortunes, are seeking an alternative. Collectively called restoration forestry, these projects attempt to prevent catastrophic wildfires while developing sustainable logging economies.
The years 2000 and 2002 saw more US wildfires than any other years in the last half century: 1.7 million acres burned in 2002, including Colorado’s Hayman fire that raged through 214 square miles last June. Eighty years of fire suppression  filled forests with overgrowth that could turn even small fires into infernos. And matters have been made worse by over a century of commercial clear-cutting, with regrowth of fire-prone brush and crowded young trees.
In 2000, Congress launched the National Fire Plan, which authorized the US Forest Service and Department of the Interior to implement and fund community programs to clean up fire-susceptible forests. The program has encouraged some local enterprises to reduce cleanup costs with small-scale equipment and seek commercial uses for the debris, particularly trees less than 12 inches in diameter.
“Thinning is a process of selective tree harvesting,” explains Mike Wood of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry in Arcata. “Good thinning looks at the forest as a whole and removes ladder fuel — material that allows a ground fire to climb to the crowns of trees.”
Wood’s distinction is meaningful, especially in California. In January, the Bush Administration proposed intensive logging of trees up to 30 inches in diameter in the Sequoia National Monument in the name of fire protection. “They’re saying we need to do this to thin out the forest and reduce the fire risk,” said Chad Hanson, with the San Francisco-based John Muir Project. “There’s no scientific basis for that. They’re proposing to take [trees from] the largest 5% of the trees in the forest. That will increase the risk of fires.” The plan would allow logging, including clearcuts, of up to 35,000 acres each decade, leaving most of the forest, home to some of the last stands of old-growth sequoiadendrons, logged over the next 40 to 50 years.
“Good” thinning, says Wood, aims to protect the forest ecosystem. “You want to be selective, leave some understory trees and maintain structural diversity,” he says. “Essentially, you’re thinning to reduce the density of the forest as a whole and allow some light to get to the floor. Often it has greatly increased the diversity of plant species.”
Petey Brucker, who runs the Salmon River Restoration Council in Sawyers Bar, didn’t need government scientists to identify fire dangers; catastrophic fires burned him out twice. The first, a 55,000-acre conflagration in 1977 that started on the Hog Range, “was our wake-up call that big fires were coming,” he recalls. Then, in 1987, a complex of five large, simultaneous fires blackened 90,000 acres; Brucker and eight of his 12 neighbors on Godfrey Ranch lost their homes.
“I decided we also need to figure out what we should do,” he says, “not just what we shouldn’t do” to protect the half-million acre Salmon River watershed and almost 900,000 acres of wilderness, 98% of it public lands. He shifted his career to forest monitoring — and then to restoration.
Brucker and other citizens of this tiny town formed the SRRC. In 1991, the Klamath Fisheries Restoration Task Force began funding the council to restore the watershed. Seven years later, the US Forest Service asked it to develop a forest restoration plan for the region to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.
The SRRC had another mission as well: to breathe some economic vitality into Sawyers Bar. Logging jobs have become so scarce in this Trinity County town that the non-profit, with 11 on staff, may now be the largest employer in the area.
“Our population has been shrinking,” Brucker says. “Logging basically shut down in the early 90s; people had trouble finding jobs. Also, the logging companies brought in their own crews. Logging used to be more mom-and-pop; it was seasonal. Now the larger companies work year-round moving from project to project, and you move around with them. The one school in Sawyers Bar closed two years ago.”
Brucker leads four SRRC programs: helping private landowners develop fire plans, organizing school education projects, pulling noxious weeds by hand [see “Basketweavers,” p. 16], and monitoring the river to protect the fishing industry.
“Since 1992 we’ve logged 60,000 volunteer hours,” Brucker boasts. “We’ve accomplished $2 million of restoration effort.”
North of the border, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project applies similar stewardship to the Klamath/Siskiyou bioregion of southwestern Oregon near Ashland.
“Before we do any thinning, the landscape ecologist identifies all native plants, develops a prescription for thinning the tract,” says Lomakatsi executive director Oshana Catranides. “We pay the workers well and treat the workers well. We also get the landowners and the community involved. They ultimately are responsible for the forest.”
The name Lomakatsi is Hopi for “Life in Balance,” and it reflects the group’s interest in traditional, sustainable forestry practices. For generations, Native Americans burned sections at intervals of nine to fifteen years to produce straight shoots of fiber crops such as bear grass, hazel, iris, and Indian hemp for cordage, hunting nets, and baskets. Fire also stimulated tender young grasses to attract elk and deer to hunting areas.
Under tribal care, the forests averaged only about 75 trees per acre. Today, after 150 years of logging and fire suppression, an acre might contain 2,000 small-diameter trees, all competing for light and nutrients, says Catranides.
Since 1995, Lomakatsi has accomplished 150 restoration projects on private land, along with streamside revegetation, landslide stabilization, habitat improvement, native grass re-seeding, tree planting, and native plant propagation. Like the SRRC, Lomakatsi emphasizes restoration workforce training, partly funded by a $200,000 National Fire Plan grant and other public funders.
Thanks to these grants, Lomakatsi staff can focus on forest health rather than forest products — but that hasn’t stopped them from experimenting with some new small-diameter forestry technologies. The cleanups yield Douglas fir, Port Orford cedar, and “hundreds of pine logs for poles or milling,” Catranides says. “People use beautiful manzanita wood for handles and furniture, and they’re considering selling it as briquettes, like mesquite.”
In March, Lomakatsi tried out a portable wood mill that cuts small logs into lumber.
“The Economizer can turn out boards from 1×1 to 2×6 inches,” Catranides said. “It’s pretty amazing. We milled 650 logs from one site; they were wrapped, banded, and graded.”
The Economizer was developed by  Trinity County’s Watershed Research and Training Council, a non-profit program in Hayfork, near Redding in Trinity County that’s looking for new commercial uses and harvesting technology for small-diameter trees.
The Watershed Council is as entrepreneurial in spirit as Lomakatsi is grassroots. Since its founding in 1993, Watershed has developed two tools to make thinning less costly and reduce forest damage: the Economizer and a yarder that can haul small logs up steep hills without disturbing the terrain.
Watershed’s director is Lynn Jungwirth; her husband Jim runs a company that builds chairs, tables, kitchen accessories, cider presses, funeral urns, and flooring from the small-diameter firs the Watershed Center gathers. It also makes produce display bins for Whole Foods Markets. The Council runs a business incubator for  enterprises developing products like posts, poles, flooring, paneling, fencing sections, even martial arts training tools.
Another Oregon nonprofit, Wallowa Resources in Enterprise, prefers its small logs unmilled. Established in 1996, Wallowa Resources works with the Forest Service to restore Wallowa-Whitman National Forest watershed. The Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory has determined that roundwood is stronger than milled timber, says executive director Diane Snyder.
“With suppressed growth, the trees grow close together and slower,” Snyder explains. “When they grow slowly, they’re much stronger. They have a tight grain, like a hardwood. It’s stronger than steel, and allows us to create a longer span than steel does.”
Snyder says the Wallowa program comes out of a community devastated by the loss of forestry jobs. Sporadic operations and mill closings — the largest was Boise Cascade in 1994 — have eliminated 290 forest products manufacturing jobs. And on top of that, the local Forest Service workforce has dropped from more than 300 to 100.
“We now have more people living off transfer payments [such as Social Security and pensions] than from jobs,” says Snyder, “The downturn in economic health had a huge social impact.”
“Forestry jobs pay a family wage, whereas service jobs don’t,” she adds. “They provided health insurance benefits, so [their disappearance] had impacts on health care. Also, our school census was plummeting, and school funding is tied to the school census. So the issue was not just the environment and fire danger, but the health of our community.”
But will these projects ever generate  enough income to keep local logging economies afloat?
Forestry expert John Shelly of the  University of California at Berkeley’s  environmental science department, is  cautiously optimistic.
“It’s a daunting challenge,” says Shelly. “We as a society are organized around the two-by-four. There are some niche markets, uses for small branch products; but it’s always very small production, high-cost, high-end items along artistic lines. The focus has to be on niche market development and finding unusual products that can be promoted based on the positive impact they’re having.”
But making a profit, says Anthony Ambrose, should not be the point. “This work shouldn’t be expected to produce revenue. It’s to reduce fuels risk. It’s an investment. We’ve  created these problems, so we think there should be an investment on the part of Congress to accomplish this work, without paying for it with more big trees. If Congress took all the millions they’re using to subsidize the timber industry, they’d have enough.”
Lomakatsi founder Oshana Catranides fears that if small-diameter thinning becomes profitable, it could even be harmful to forests. “When agencies and companies find out [it’s cost-effective],” says Catranides, “they tend to over-harvest. We risk losing all our understory trees; they could take out an entire age class. It’s like removing all our teenagers.”
But both agree that making products from removed materials makes sense. Whatever it takes to keep the forests healthy must be done, says Catranides, “because only 5% of the ancient forests are left.
“We are creating a movement in the Pacific Northwest,” she continues. “Our goal is to create an ideal environment for the forests — to show how to make it work environmentally, socially, and economically. Anything less is a compromise.”

Comments are closed.