ROSEBURG, Ore. -- On a mist-veiled mountain in western Oregon, pink ribbons mark Douglas fir trees that federal officials hope will revive the area's teetering timber industry and potentially spark a biological renaissance.
The Bureau of Land Management this summer plans to begin selling more than 8 million board feet of lumber across 285 acres. The project, albeit small by historical standards, hopes to shift the paradigm in Pacific Northwest forestry.
The Myrtle Creek project is part of a broader Obama administration push to restore western Oregon forests, boost supplies for local mills and revive funding for cash-strapped counties.
The sale is one of three "ecological forestry" pilots that seek a middle ground between light-on-the-land thinnings and the industrial clear cuts BLM abandoned decades ago.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this year announced BLM will pursue a handful of additional ecological forestry projects, and the Forest Service, which manages most Pacific Northwest forests, may also follow suit.
Officials are cautiously optimistic the projects will break through the appeals, lawsuits and court battles that have hung over these forests for decades.
The pilot hopes to appease environmentalists who have opposed harvesting old-growth or virgin stands and a timber industry clamoring for bigger logs.
So far, nobody's satisfied.
"They purposefully picked something politically contentious," said Paul Henson, supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Oregon office in Portland.
"They're older trees that haven't suffered from previous entry," he added. "It's a test."
Environmentalists have so far opposed the pilots, arguing that they would allow clear-cutting that would stunt the development of old-growth habitat important to northern spotted owls and endangered sea birds and coho salmon.
"It's our next best spotted owl mature forest habitat," said Francis Eatherington, conservation director for the Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, which in July filed an appeal to halt the Myrtle Creek sale and has filed a separate appeal challenging the agency's Coos Bay pilot.
Meanwhile, the timber industry argues that the pilots, while an improvement over tree thinnings, fall short of BLM's statutory mandate to provide maximum sustained logging on its forested lands.
"We wish we could believe the promises of Secretary Salazar and this administration when it comes to providing a sustainable level of timber, but their track record over the past three years has been abysmal," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council.
"We are offered nothing more than more planning, process and empty promises while the forests of Oregon and the communities that depend on them suffer."
The Portland-based group is separately suing BLM in a federal district court in Washington, D.C., claiming the agency is failing to sell at least a half-billion board feet of lumber annually, as called for in the Western Oregon Plan Revisions and mandated under the 1937 O&C Lands Act.
So much for breaking through the protests and lawsuits.
Abe Wheeler, a BLM forester in his early 30s, said he's not surprised the Myrtle Creek sale has drawn fire from both sides.
On a cold, drizzly afternoon in May, Wheeler pointed to a 108-year-old stand of Douglas firs slated for harvest in the upcoming sale. Decades from now, the trees will be old enough to harbor owls and other old-growth-dependent species, conservationists argue.
"Environmentalists will say it's not old growth, but it will be, and it's older than the younger stands, so it will be sooner than them," Wheeler said. "And it's all true."
And while the trees are on "matrix" lands that the Northwest Forest Plan set aside for commercial timber sales, including clear cuts, some are on tracts that have never been harvested and which the Interior Department has proposed as critical habitat for the spotted owl.
In addition, the sale would allow "variable retention" regeneration harvests that call for certain areas to be clear-cut, a break from past BLM sales that has angered environmentalists.
But in contrast to private timber lands, where entire stands are slicked off to make room for future saplings, loggers at Myrtle Creek will be required to preserve roughly 40 percent of the trees, including pockets of old growth, dead snags and downed debris important to a variety of wildlife.
Wheeler pointed to a pair of Douglas fir trees whose tops were lopped off in a windstorm. While commercially valuable, the trees will be protected in order to provide nesting cavities for owls, other birds and rodents that favor rotting trunks.
"When the tops break, it allows fungus spores to get down into the top, and the rot begins working its way down the core," Wheeler said. "That's why they will be retained. They're ahead on the rot."
And unlike private timberlands that are quickly reseeded and sprayed with herbicides as soon as they're cut, the harvested lands in Myrtle Creek will be left largely unmanaged for the next few decades in order to allow the growth of sun-loving shrubs and fruit trees that will attract species such as songbirds, butterflies, deer and elk.
The "diverse early seral" habitat and the species it attracts have become scarce in the Pacific Northwest due in part to industrial logging and post-fire management, said Jerry Franklin, a professor from the University of Washington who designed the Myrtle Creek sale with Norm Johnson of Oregon State University.
"We're trying to create conditions for early seral vegetation, which is highly diverse -- shrubs and nuts and seed and fruits," he said. Such diversity, he added, can be found along utility corridors or in the forestlands wiped clean by the eruption of Mount St. Helens. "We have stopped doing any harvests that make these kinds of openings."
He described the diversity of Oregon forests as a deformed upside-down bell curve: Diversity is high when the forest is young but plummets as the trees grow up, the canopy closes and the forest goes dark. Diversity returns as the forest turns to old growth, albeit only after hundreds of years.
New clear cuts?
Still, critics also argue that the pilots at Myrtle Creek and Coos Bay mark the first time in roughly a decade that BLM has allowed regeneration harvests, in which trees are intensely cut and seeds are planted to begin the next crop.
In contrast, restoration thinning projects, which environmentalists across the West have broadly supported, remove a smaller number of younger trees to allow surrounding stands to grow faster, accelerating the creation of old growth.
Eatherington, who worked as a timber stand contractor before joining the environmental movement in the 1990s, said thinning projects have provided more than enough timber for BLM's Coos Bay district to exceed harvest targets over the past several years, and the Roseburg district came close to its target. Almost none of those sales has been appealed, she said.
"They made up this excuse that they need to break through gridlock," Eatherington said of BLM, an agency she worked for in the 1970s planting seedlings after clear cuts. "What's interesting is there's been no gridlock until right now."
Moreover, there's no scientific justification to return to regeneration harvests, she said. Early seral habitat is abundant on the private lands that pepper roughly half of BLM's checkerboarded O&C lands, she said.
Franklin and BLM dispute that point, arguing that private timberlands are intensely sprayed with herbicides and quickly replanted before early seral habitat can thrive.
Even so, Eatherington said, the agency has not made the case that species need more grass and shrub lands to survive.
"If the BLM could point out a moth, a butterfly that was in need of more habitat, and they provided that habitat and could show that they saved this moth or butterfly, then they might bring me along," Eatherington said. "But they can't, they can't point to one species that is endangered."
Fire suppression, which planners cite as a cause of diminishing early seral habitats, has had a negligible impact in the moist forests of Oregon's Coast Range, where fires are naturally less frequent, she said.
Environmental groups say BLM and the Forest Service could increase timber harvests 44 percent in the Pacific Northwest by expanding the use of "ecologically appropriate" thinning of mostly small-diameter trees in degraded forests.
But BLM officials and Franklin warn the agency is running out of forests to thin.
"One of the reasons the pilots are so important is we're doing more thinning than what is sustainable under the O&C Act," said Jeff Davis, a forest manager for BLM's Coos Bay district, who estimated the agency has 15 to 25 years of thinning left.
Over the past seven years, the district has thinned several times as many trees as what is called for in its resource management plan, Davis said. The status quo, he said, could irrevocably harm the agency's ability to meet future harvest goals.
"The Northwest Forest Plan calls for a certain amount of regeneration harvests, and we haven't done that in 10 years," Davis said. "Under the O&C Act, we made a commitment to the counties in Oregon that we would harvest timber and provide them some receipts."
Counties' financial misery
Western Oregon counties still reel from the loss of federal timber revenues that began in the 1990s when protections were granted to the spotted owl and other old-growth species across millions of acres in Oregon, Washington and northern California.
For the past decade, the 18 counties surrounding BLM's 2.4 million acres of O&C lands have relied on federal payments from the Secure Rural Schools program, which, while recently extended by Congress, continues to decline and is set to expire again at the end of September. Counties received just under $40 million from last year's payment, which is about one-third what they received four years ago.
And although nobody expects ecological forestry to match the revenues from Oregon's timber heyday -- in which a majority of the state's old growth was liquidated -- the pilots hope to provide a more sustainable revenue source in the absence of federal aid. Counties receive half of all revenues generated on O&C lands.
Amid the uncertainty, counties have already taken drastic steps.
Josephine County earlier this year released 39 inmates from its jail after voters rejected a $12 million tax increase to plug a shortfall caused in part by expired timber payments. Lane County late last month followed suit, releasing 96 of its prisoners and laying off 40 law enforcement personnel to cut costs.
Doug Robertson, a commissioner in Douglas County, which received about $10 million in rural schools payments in January, said other counties may not be far behind.
"The counties are mailing their keys back to the state," he said.
Although the pilots offer more trees -- and potentially more profits -- per acre than thinning projects, the harvests still fall short of what is envisioned under the Northwest Forest Plan, said Andy Geissler, western Oregon field forester for the American Forest Resource Council.
"We had these land use allocations, and timber was really put near the bottom of the list," he said of a Clinton administration plan that designated 13 percent of the federal forests for timber production and reduced overall harvests by more than three-fourths. "There was a huge compromise."
But neither BLM nor the Forest Service met its harvest goals, in large part because of lawsuits from environmentalists.
"Our problem is that compromise wasn't good enough, and [environmentalists] want more compromise," said Geissler, 32, a Long Island, N.Y., native who worked for Washington's Department of Natural Resources before joining AFRC. "That's why we try to stand firm on these sales, because we feel like the compromise was already made."
Requiring loggers to leave behind many of the valuable trees at Coos Bay and Myrtle Creek will increase costs for timber companies that already pay for road construction, hauling and environmental remediation, he said.
"Every board foot helps out, because these sales are extremely marginal," he said during a tour of timber operations in the Coos Bay district, where the smell of diesel and pine permeated the air.
Leaving forests in their natural state for 30 years, as the pilots propose, also means it will take much longer to produce the next harvestable stand.
"Instead of cutting the trees, regenerating and planting 400 trees per acre, which is kind of the standard, they're planting maybe 150 and encouraging that land to stay in brush, vine, maple, you know, salal, elderberry, all these brush species for a good 20 to 30 years," he said.
Will the logjam break?
While Salazar has touted the success of BLM's inaugural pilot south of Medford -- a thinning project that sold for three times its appraised value and drew no appeals or lawsuits -- the Coos Bay and Myrtle Creek pilots have drawn sharper scrutiny, casting doubt on whether the pilots will win over their most important constituents.
Salazar and others appear confident they will. Franklin, for one, said he and Johnson earlier this summer presented their ecological forestry model to the Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington, where timber sales have also significantly dropped.
"They're keeping a very low profile, trying to avoid controversy," Franklin said of the Forest Service. "But I think several forests are interested in trying this sort of thing."
The biggest legal test may be at Myrtle Creek, which faces heightened scrutiny because it is located among the roughly 10 million acres of lands the Obama administration has proposed as critical habitat for the spotted owl.
By the law's strict definition, critical habitat cannot be adversely modified. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, has said such harvests are compatible with the owl's recovery plan.
While not expected to benefit the owl immediately -- critics suspect it may even kill a few of the birds -- the Myrtle Creek project will gird the forest against future threats, particularly wildfires and insect epidemics, officials say.
But the courts may have the final say.
"I have a hard time believing regeneration harvests would be able to take place in critical habitat," Geissler said.
Robertson, the commissioner from Douglas County where the Myrtle Creek sale is located, said he supports the pilots but doesn't believe they will pass legal muster.
"It can't be replicated across the landscape because of the environmental community saying, 'We have a way to stop this,'" he said.
"Unless you get these lands out from under the labyrinth of federal rules, restrictions, regulations and requirements, they can't be managed for their stated purposes," he added. "They just can't."
BLM's Davis expressed similar doubts, suggesting that environmental groups in the state appear unwilling to allow regeneration harvests to move forward on any federal lands.
"Saying there's some common ground we can compromise with, I'm not sure until you get a legislative fix," he said as the buzz of chain saws and the crackle of falling timber echoed through the forest. "People have certain values they're really not willing to compromise."
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say they supported the Medford thinning project but were shut out of the discussion over other pilots. The return to regeneration harvests -- or clear cuts, depending on whom you ask -- appeared to be a foregone conclusion, they say.
"The pilot process appeared to involve early involvement by a subset of stakeholders who drove the process toward certain outcomes (such as clearcutting) before the public was given a chance to influence these decisions," said a letter to BLM last summer from Oregon Wild, one of the state's largest environmental groups. "Regeneration harvest (aka clearcutting) of mature forests would likely not be on the top of the public's list of priorities."
In spite of the controversy, the success, or failure, of the pilots could be a bellwether for the future management of Pacific Northwest forests, where BLM and the Forest Service will soon revise management plans that govern timber sales across tens of millions of acres.
It could also help determine the fate of a controversial proposal by Oregon congressmen to transfer management of about 1.5 million acres of O&C lands to a state-appointed timber trust, exempting them from bedrock environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act consultations. The other half of the lands would be managed primarily for conservation.
The proposal, which is rooted in decades of frustration over the management of federal forests, could come to the fore in the next Congress if the pilots fail and alternative solutions are not found.
"If you can't practice light-touch, scientifically based modern forestry working with the most prominent forest ecologists in the Northwest, if not the world, then it certainly does beg the question of whether [environmentalists] are hard and fast at zero cut," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who authored the draft O&C bill with Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.). "We're going to have to look for an alternative."
While yet to be formally introduced, the proposal has drawn the support of Robertson and AFRC but is strongly opposed by environmentalists.
Geissler said the proposal would resolve decades of conflicts.
"We can't play together," he said of his industry and environmental groups, "so we have to be separated."