Failing forestry: Oregon’s forestry department is on an unsustainable path: Oregonian news story

By Ted Sickinger
October 20, 2019

Oregon’s state forests are supposed to be managed to deliver a balance of benefits, from sustainable timber harvests to habitat for fish and wildlife, from clean air and drinking water to well-managed recreation spaces.

But the Oregon Department of Forestry is failing on almost every front.

The reasons are numerous, but stem from structural issues exacerbated during the last decade by ineffective management at the agency, ineffectual oversight by its seven-member board and inaction by the governor and legislators.

The agency’s state forest division budget is almost entirely dependent on timber sales, a volatile revenue stream that it can’t control and is subject to market swings, political agendas and legal challenges. The division gets no money from taxpayers, but is asked to provide services that cost millions of dollars annually and generate little or no revenue. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the timber sales it does generate go directly to 15 counties and the taxing districts where the logging takes place.

Since the 2008 recession, agency managers have warned that budget formula no longer works, leaving them operating at the edge of a financial precipice.

In response, they’ve axed staff, frozen programs and cut more trees. They’ve reduced the amount of forests set aside for conservation. They’ve deferred investments necessary to ensure future forest health and productivity. And they’ve skimmed the cream off their available “inventory,” targeting accessible clearcuts of large, high-value trees to quickly generate more profitable sales.

Those aren’t sustainable tactics, much less the durable long-term strategy to increase both financial and conservation outcomes that the division has been directed to develop since 2013, but has so far failed to deliver.

It’s unclear that such a balance can be achieved. Tradeoffs are inevitable. That’s why the current strategy – laid out in a document called the forest management plan — has become a zero-sum game, pitting rural counties, their schools and jobs against conservation, recreation and clean water.

The policy mess will be showcased in a trial starting this week. Fourteen of Oregon’s 15 “forest trust land” counties are suing the agency, arguing they’ve been shortchanged $1.4 billion in logging revenues. Bankrolled by private timber companies, the counties claim the state breached its contract with them by failing to maximize harvests on state forests since 2001. Many observers expect the agency will lose.