Economists, foresters and environmentalists concerned about toxic drinking water, habitat degradation and economic equity say Oregon’s system allows large private corporations to use industrial agriculture methods that deforest thousands of acres of Oregon forests, contaminate water and accelerate climate change.
They say these calamaties are the result of a law, the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA) and the vigorous lobbying of international timber corporations in the Oregon legislature that keeps the law toothless and the Oregon Department of Forestry complicit.
The Oregon Department of Forestry disagrees.
“To be blunt, the Oregon Forest Practices Act is an embarrassment,” says John Talberth, founder and senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy, an environmental economics think tank based in Lake Oswego. “For a state that bills itself among the greenest and most innovative in the country, the OFPA is a reminder of just how bad things can get when decision makers turn their backs on a problem and let corporate greed run its course. The OFPA is one of the weakest forest practices statutes in the nation.”
Who are Oregon’s corporate forest landowners?
Privately owned forests in Oregon represent 10.7 million acres, or 35% of Oregon’s forestland. Companies that harvest more than 100 million board feet/year include Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek, Stimson Lumber, Hancock Natural Resources Group, Campbell Global and Roseburg Forest Products.
Other entities, including the state and the federal government (and many small forest owners) own and manage the balance of Oregon forests. “Large industrial forestland owners are clearly the worst,” Talberth says. “Their goals are not to manage forests in a way beneficial to Oregonians, but to manage forests as an asset on paper that can be liquidated and then exported overseas in a heartbeat to benefit the bottom line of their international investors.”
What are The Oregon Forest Practices Act and the Oregon Department of Forestry?
The OFPA was first enacted in 1971 and has been revised multiple times. It sets the standards for all commercial logging activities.
The ODF manages the state’s “working forests” with OFPA guidelines; its Board is responsible for interpreting the OFPA and setting rules for forest practices.
Behind the Emerald Curtain, a documentary released by Pacific Rivers, an Oregon-based watershed advocacy organization, critiques the OFPA for allowing industrial practices on corporate forestlands, including extensive clear-cutting and the spraying of toxic herbicides and pesticides.
These practices, it says, result in increased temperature and sediment pollution in waterways and deadly conditions for “indicator” species that require healthy forests to survive, such as salmon and steelhead.
In January 2015, in response to a lawsuit filed by Northwest Environmental Advocates (NWA) the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that Oregon’s logging practices created dangerous levels of water pollution and harmed fish. The state failed, they said, to protect small and medium-sized streams, to control pollution from some logging roads, to protect streams from landslides and fish from pesticides applied for logging.
“The blame for this shameful disapproval can be squarely laid at the doorstep of Oregon’s forest practices law, the agencies and boards that do nothing to improve forest practices, and the logging industry that maintains a tight political grip on this state,” said Nina Bell, Executive Director of NWA at the time.
In The Liquidation of Forests in McKenzie’s Quartz Creek (2015) the Center for Sustainable Economy assessed damage done by Rosboro Lumber Company in the 27,000-acre watershed that provides drinking water for Eugene. It pointed out instances where OFPA’s requirements were significantly less robust than those used for federal forests, resulting in “long-term deforestation and… degradation.”
The OFPA, for example, requires “no cut” buffers of trees along only the largest perennial streams and some that provide domestic water – and then only 20’-25’ in width. On national forest lands, in contrast, fish-bearing streams are now given 300’ – 350’ of protection either side of the bank, and non-fish bearing streams receive buffers of 110’ – 170’.
The Quartz Creek assessment also noted OFPA contains no limit on the amount of land permitted to be in “recent clear-cut condition” at any time, and no older forest retention standards. These practices are significantly more lax than rules that guide federal forests. “Our analysis reveals a pattern of forest liquidation that will be reflected in a watershed largely stripped of forest cover for decades to come,” the assessment stated.
Serious human impacts
The effects of clear cutting are felt by human beings, too, according to Ernie Niemi, managing director and senior economist at Natural Resource Economics, of Eugene. “When you cut down trees, most of the heat they retained goes into the atmosphere… Anyone who cares about climate change needs to address the issue of what I call ‘green coal,’ or the private timber industry in Oregon.”
Economists like Niemi say OFPA forces Oregon communities to pay for the landslides, toxic drinking water and illnesses that result from logging. “As of now, in Oregon, timber corporations see the benefits – and impost the costs on the rest of us,” Niemi says. “As unrestricted logging pushes more carbon dioxide into the air we will see substantially more heat-related illnesses and heat-related deaths from the climate change it’s causing.”
The OFPA contains no limits on the rate of clear cutting; between 2000 and 2015, western Oregon has lost nearly 522,000 acres of forest cover. John Talberth and Erik Fernandez, in Deforestation, Oregon Style, say forest loss to clear-cutting has exceeded forest regrowth by 45% between 2000 and 2013.
How can the Department of Forestry allow these harms?
Small foresters such as Michael Donnelly, former Vice President of the Oregon Natural Resource Council (now Oregon Wild) and co-founder of the Friends of Opal Creek, and Peter Hayes of Hyla Woods, a forestry company devoted to stewardship, say “tree plantation” processes are protected and perpetuated by Oregon’s Department of Forestry because of its submission to the OPFA. Simultaneously, they criticize heavy lobbying by the corporate logging industry in the Oregon legislature for making sure OFPA rules remain ineffectual.
Arguing that mainstream forestry practices “subsidize profits by degrading the public good,” Hayes, who served on the State Board of Forestry for three years, says the industrial ag model “requires political corruption to maintain it. It’s the power of money in our political system, the power of the Department of Forestry and other state agencies.”
Donnelly agrees. “Timber has dominated our politics in Oregon for so long; there are properties that own millions of dollars of timber and pay just thousands of dollars in taxes every year,” he says. “And what small amount of taxes these corporations do pay goes right into publicity like the Oregon Forest Resources Institute that misleads the public.”
In 1999, Oregon’s legislature exempted the largest, industrial forestland owners from paying the timber harvest privilege tax – while keeping the tax intact for small forestland owners.
“The legislature’s failure to act,” Talberth says, “has allowed drinking water supplies to be contaminated with sediments and chemicals, has accelerated the extinction of wildlife and fish species that need real forests and not tree plantations to survive, has resulted in tens of thousands of landslides that damage roads and property… and has locked rural Oregon communities into a pattern of poverty characteristic of economies dependent on industrial resource extraction wherever it occurs in the world.”
State agencies refute these contentions
Both the Department of Forestry and the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, deny the critics.
“The OFPA,” says Peter Daugherty, Private Forests Division Chief of the ODF, “is vital in assuring the public that private lands are managed responsibly, and in providing a stable regulatory environment.” The Oregon Legislature, he says, “states that Oregon’s public policy is to encourage economically efficient forest practices to ensure sustainable wood production as the leading use on private forestlands.”
Daugherty maintains that the amount of wood harvested each year is “about equal to the annual growth” on private forestlands, and notes that the OFPA “requires prompt reforestation of harvested areas.”
“While not perfect,” he says, “Oregon’s forestry laws are continually updated to reflect current science and Oregonian values.”
Oregon Forest Resources Institute Director of Forestry Mike Cloughesy concurs, maintaining, “The OFPA is a robust set of laws that protect our communities, waters and natural systems.” Inka Bajandas, Public Outreach Manager for OFRI adds that Oregon’s forest practice laws “are among the strongest in the nation… Perhaps the strongest in the nation.”
Steps to more responsible forestry
Hayes feels all forest owners should be responsible to the public trust, “which all of us share, and none of us own.” Among the suggestions critics offer:
• Close tax loopholes that increase emissions from industrial forestlands
• Tax ecologically harmful practices at the highest rate
•End the property tax break (90%) now provided to any land managed for timber no matter the condition of that land, including open clear-cuts and logging roads
• Protect waterways with adequate no-cut buffers
• Incentivize responsible practices. Paul Vanderford, Board Member and Finance Committee Chair of the Build Local Alliance, a Portland partnership of forest owners, distributors and developers, says, “Markets can reward stewardship in the same way a family that buys organic apples is rewarding orchards that use fewer chemicals in their production.”
• Reinstate the State forester’s ability to evaluate significant logging operations
• Allow the state Department of Environmental Quality to approve logging operations that affect water quality
In the end, Hayes says, any and all changes will be the result of public will.
“In Oregon we have the option to have forestry that will serve everyone better,” Hayes says. “We at Hyla Woods want that change badly enough to make it happen with us. I would ask: do you, fellow Oregonians? Because foresters can’t do it on their own.”