Feature Article

The Northwestern Timber Debate

Fact: Lumber prices have doubled in the past year. Claims: The industry blames logging restrictions on federal land. Environmentalists claim it is at least as much a result of coming out of a recession. Plus, they say, in real prices, the cost of a 2x4 is about what it was in the early ’70s.

Fact: More than 130 sawmills and plywood mills have closed since 1990, putting over 12,000 employees out of work. Claims: Logging restrictions are to blame says the industry. No, say environmentalists; improved efficiency, elimination of older less profitable plants, general down-sizing after a period of poorly planned growth in the early ’80s, and export of whole logs are to blame.

Fact: The Pacific Northwest contains the nation’s last remaining old-growth forest, nearly all of which is on public land. Claims: We’re about to lose the remaining few percent of the old-growth forests that once existed say environmentalists. Not so, says the industry, which claims that there is far more old growth and that a significant percent of it is already locked up as parks and wilderness.

Fact: The northern spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990, blocking logging in large areas of public forest in the Pacific Northwest. Claims: The spotted owl needs undisturbed old-growth forest to survive and breed, and that habitat is threatened by logging, say environmentalists. The industry counters that more than twice as many spotted owls are now known to exist than were known in 1990, and the species does not require old-growth forest habitat.

Alex Wilson supporting a Douglas fir in the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon.

The issue of forest management in the Pacific Northwest is extremely complex and polarized. There seems to be very little middle ground between the timber industry, which depends on timber from federal lands and wants to regain access to that resource, and environmentalists, who want to preserve the last of our old-growth forest ecosystems. We at EBN believe that wood needs to continue playing an important role in construction. If responsible forestry practices are employed in producing timber, wood is environmentally preferable to competing structural materials (steel, aluminum, and concrete). If logging restrictions in the U.S. are

too severe, we run the risk of causing problems elsewhere, such as in Siberia, where vast areas of ecologically fragile timberland may soon be clearcut with no environmental safeguards.

This article seeks to provide background on the controversy, offer a glimpse into the complexity of the forest management issues involved, suggest policy recommendations for reaching an acceptable middle ground, and, finally, provide specific recommendations for what we as builders and designers can and should do in response to the problem.


Approximately one-third of the land area in the United States (730 million acres) is forest, according to a 1992 publication of the Evergreen Foundation in Medford, OR. This is down from about half our land area in 1600 (1.1 billion acres). Of existing forest, 483 million acres are classified as commercial timberland that is capable of producing wood fiber—the rest being either unproductive forest or reserved timber land (set-asides for national parks, wilderness areas, etc.). Ownership of commercial timberland in the U.S. is as follows: 57% private individuals, 18% national forests, 15% forest industry, and 10% other public lands (Bureau of Land Management, state land, etc.). In the nation as a whole, annual net growth of timber in 1986 exceeded harvests by approximately 37%: 108 billion board feet of growth, vs. 79.5 billion board feet of harvest.

Timber production in the Pacific Northwest has received a great deal of attention in recent years for a number of reasons. First, the nation’s most productive forests are in Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Second, the Pacific Northwest is the one region of the U.S. where timber harvesting has exceeded timber growth in most recent years. Third, a large percent of these timberlands are on public lands (56% of timberlands in Oregon are on public land, 30% in Washington, and 54% in California). Fourth, the economies in the Northwest—particularly Oregon and Washington—are heavily dependent on the timber industry, and especially on timber harvested from public lands. Fifth, the remaining old-growth forests in the region are the only forests in the continental United States that have not all been harvested at least once, and they have important scenic, recreational, and ecosystem value.

Public concern about how federal timberlands are being managed in the Pacific Northwest has increased dramatically in the past decade. Why? There are probably many reasons, but several stand out: First, there has been a generally rising awareness of the environment, spurred by concerns of global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain. Second (ironically), efforts by some officials in the Reagan administration to give away public land (literally or figuratively) backfired, raising public mistrust of federal management practices and greatly strengthening the political influence of environmental organizations. Third, early actions by people on both sides of the timber issue—industry alignment with the Wise Use Movement and the “spiking” of trees by radical environmentalists, for example—raised the emotions and hackles among more moderate individuals, drawing them into the fray.

The controversy has grown even as logging has been excluded from large areas of public land and as more responsible forest management practices have been adopted by the National Forest Service and the BLM. Among the regulations affecting forestry practices, the most significant is the 1976 National Forest Management Act (NFMA), which requires that management plans be drawn up and followed in each national forest to prevent erosion, ensure sustainable timber harvest, and protect wildlife habitat.

Two other pieces of legislation, the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), have also significantly affected forest management in the Pacific Northwest. NEPA requires an assessment of environmental impacts that might result from federally funded projects. While timber harvesting on public land was at first not considered to fall under this law, NEPA has been increasingly relied upon by environmental groups to challenge timber harvest plans. When the northern spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in 1990, large additional areas of national forests, BLM lands, and private timber lands were designated as off-limits to logging to protect remaining spotted owl habitat.

Forest Management in the Pacific Northwest

During a recent visit to the forests of the Pacific Northwest, I was struck by the fact that forest ecosystems differ greatly—both in how they functioned before humans interfered (influence of fire, disease, etc.), and in how they are managed today for timber. Differences between “Westside” forests (west of the Cascades) and “Eastside” forests (east of the Cascades) are so great that the two are rarely even considered together by foresters. Even within one particular forest type, there are large differences in rainfall, species composition, and growth characteristics from one side of a ridge to another, and from one elevation to another. It simply does not work to lump all forests together and suggest broad-brush management strategies that should apply across the board.

Take clear-cutting for example. Most of the public cringes at the thought (or sight) of clearcuts. But a simple ban on clearcutting does not always make sense. To understand why, let’s take a look at Douglas fir, the most important timber species in the Westside forests—a tree that grows to well over 200 feet with girths of six feet or more. Douglas fir is an early successional shade-intolerant species. In natural forests, Douglas fir comes in after an area of land has been cleared—usually by fire. As the Douglas fir forest grows up (a process that takes several hundred years) shade-tolerant species, such as western hemlock and red cedar, come in underneath and gradually replace the fir. “Climax” forests of Douglas fir simply do not exist.

Before Europeans arrived, periodic forest fires consumed vast areas of forest. As we began putting out wildfires, starting in the 1930s or ’40s, the area burned by fire dropped dramatically.

If a goal of forest management is to maintain forest types that were here before European settlers interfered with the natural ecosystem, then it would make sense to try to replicate the impact of periodic fires. Indeed, it can be argued that that is what clearcutting in the Westside Douglas fir forests does. Even ground burning of slash may be appropriate if our goal is to mimic natural forest cycles. Note that this does not apply to the predominantly ponderosa pine forests east of the Cascades. Ponderosa pine is shade tolerant and can do very well in a selective harvest management system.

Old Growth

Oldgrowth in Mount Hood National Forest

Old growth along the Salmon River, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon

Defining old-growth forests and determining just how much remains lie at the heart of the controversy over forest management in the Pacific Northwest. First some terminology:

•Old-Growth Forests. Definitions vary dramatically depending on the priorities of those doing the defining. To a timber industry forester, old growth is sometimes defined as the point at which the increase in annual wood production peaks, or the definition may be based on the age of the stand (over 200 or 250 years old) or the size of the trees (stands with trees over 21” in diameter, for example). To an ecologist, old-growth forests are later successional forests that have greater species diversity, a multilayered canopy with different age trees, standing broken-off dead trees (snags), and a large number of logs on the ground. Even within the U.S. Forest Service, the definition of old-growth forest differs significantly among the different national forests, and it often includes an area component, such as a ten-acre minimum size.

•Ancient Forests. This term is generally synonymous with old-growth forest and is preferred by most environmental groups. Some efforts are made to distinguish between old-growth and ancient forests, but these distinctions are more confusing than useful.

•Climax Forests. A climax forest is one that has reached its ultimate successional stage. Species composition and diversity in a climax forest will change little over time. In many areas of the Pacific Northwest, a true climax forest would take over 1,000 years to develop owing to the longevity of early successional species. Rarely has a Pacific Northwest forest escaped fire long enough to become a climax forest.

How Much Old Growth is Left? Estimates of how much old-growth forest remains in the Pacific Northwest vary even more dramatically than the definitions. Elliott Norse of the Wilderness Society, in

Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest (see review) estimates that only 13% of the old-growth forests in Oregon and Washington are left: approximately 2.5 million acres. Further, he writes, more than a quarter of this old growth area is at the edge of small stands or along roads where blowdowns and other external influences are likely, leaving only 1.9 million acres of “uncompromised” old-growth forest, just 10% of what had once existed.

The Northwest Forest Resource Council, an industry organization, estimates that there are over 8.2 million acres of virgin old-growth forest on federal land in Oregon and Washington, including 6.9 million acres in national forests. This total is based largely on estimates from the National Forest Service and BLM. Of this total, they claim that 4.7 million acres or 57% is permanently protected as national parks, wilderness areas, and other land set-asides (not including land recently made off-limits to logging to protect spotted owl habitat).

So who is right? There is obviously a big difference between 2.5 million acres and 8.2 million acres? James Lyons,* at a conference on

Wood Product Demand and the Environment in November 1991 noted that the maps of old-growth forest compiled by environmentalists (referring to the Wilderness Society studies) “are generally recognized as accurate and complete. They far exceed any information on old-growth inventories provided by the Forest Service to date.” The timber industry, though, has criticized the Wilderness Society oldgrowth estimates as grossly inaccurate. The truth probably lies somewhere between these divergent estimates.

Forest Management Objectives and Strategies

Traditionally, both private and publicly owned forests have been managed for maximum timber yield. This is what was taught in forestry schools, and it’s what generations of foresters had as a common foundation to their profession. Maximum yield (and profit) is still the driving motivation on most private timber lands, but major changes are occurring on public lands. Over the past ten or fifteen years, an increasingly vocal public has demanded that public lands be managed for more than just timber. “Multiple-use” management provides for recreation, wildlife habitat, and species diversity in addition to timber production.

Schematic drawing of a cable logging operation. Graphic courtesy the Western Wood Products Association.

Conventional practices. As mentioned, conventional forest management differs tremendously from one forest type to another in the Pacific Northwest. In the Douglas fir forests on the Westside, conventional practice is to clearcut large swaths of forest, burn the slash (limbs and tops), and replant with Douglas fir seedlings. On private timber land, the clearcut is often sprayed with herbicides to kill brush and species that might compete with seedlings. As the trees grow, they are thinned several times, and they may be sprayed with a nitrogen fertilizer two or three times before harvesting in 60 to 100 years. If bug infestations occur (which are not that common with Douglas fir, but are common with pine and other species), pesticide spraying may be done.

Logging is done in a number of ways depending on the topography. On relatively flat terrain (up to about 25% slope), trees are felled and pulled out with skidders. On steeper land, a cable logging system is usually set up (see figure). On some sites helicopters and even balloons are used for bringing logs to the loading area. In the Pacific Northwest, cable systems are used for about 50% of all logging, skidders 36%, helicopters 6%, horses or balloons 2%, and mechanical harvesters (in which trees are felled, limbed, cut to length, and loaded onto trucks mechanically) 4-6%.

Replanting with Douglas fir seedlings on Willamette Industries land in western Oregon.

How forest management is changing. The days of huge clearcuts with no attention to replanting or ecosystem protection are gone. Laws now regulate forest management to at least some extent throughout the Pacific Northwest. Both Oregon and Washington have comprehensive state laws that apply to all forestry—both public and private. The Oregon Forest Practices Act, as recently amended, limits most clearcuts to 120 acres, requires all forested land to be restocked with a minimum of 200 trees per acre within two years after harvest, protects riparian zones (along streams), and specifies that areas adjacent to clearcuts cannot be logged until replantings on the clearcuts are four years old or have reached 412 feet in height. This recent amendment was promoted by the timber industry to reduce the likelihood of a statewide referendum that could have banned clearcuts. Washington’s law is similar, though without the limit on clearcut size.

On federal lands (national forests and BLM lands), forest management must meet or exceed state standards. Under provisions of the National Forest Management Act, each national forest has completed forest management plans during the past few years. While these management plans have been challenged in court because of inadequate provisions for protecting spotted owl habitat, they do a much better job at protecting ecosystems than older practices. The plans include provisions for recreation, some habitat set-aside areas for spotted owls, riparian protection zones to prevent erosion and damage to salmon spawning, logging restrictions on steep slopes, requirements for leaving some large standing trees to provide nesting habitat, and requirements for leaving some down woody material for soil fertility and habitat diversity. While burning of slash is not prohibited, pollution control laws have greatly reduced the practice in recent years.

Despite these positive measures, critics point out that most federal lands are still managed primarily for just one species and one size of tree (even-aged stands), which limits species diversity. While seedlings for replanting are grown from seeds collected in ecologically similar areas, there is far less genetic diversity among the stands than occurs with natural reseeding. And the relatively short rotation cycles may result in serious soil nutrient depletion over the course of several rotations.

To address these concerns, forestry researchers are developing radically different ecosystem management strategies that are collectively referred to as “New Forestry.” The basic idea is to consciously mimic natural disturbances in a way that supports high biological diversity. At Oregon State University I saw experimental Douglas fir plots in which very small, one-half acre patches were harvested, creating a mosaic of small openings and wooded areas; researchers are studying whether young Douglas firs can grow in these filtered light patches. In other areas of the OSU forest, I saw dozens of intentional snags in larger clearcuts, the tops of which were either cut off or blown off with explosives (they are trying to determine which approach is better) to provide cavity-nesting trees for wildlife. In still other areas, a fairly large number of living trees were left in each stand (“leave trees”) to provide a multi-level tree canopy and old trees mixed in with the even-aged stands. Among many in the timber industry, “new forestry” is still sort of a bad word. In the old school of thinking, anything other than large clearcuts and even-aged stands represents inefficient harvesting, lower yields, greater risk to loggers, and reduced profit. But such practices will undoubtedly become standard sooner or later.

Some of the private timber companies have also taken significant strides in sustainable forest management practices. On Boise Cascade land in Idaho, I saw mixed ponderosa pine forests that were being managed for selective harvest rather than clearcutting. Unlike the Westside Douglas firs, ponderosa pine will re-seed naturally in partial sunlight after thinning or selective harvest.

Threatened species protection. The northern spotted owl has become almost synonymous with the forest management controversy in the Pacific Northwest. When it was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, 1,500 pairs of this reclusive species were known to exist, all in undisturbed old-growth forest. With so much attention now focused on the species, however, more have been found: a total of 10,083 northern spotted owls were counted in 1992, including 4,018 pairs. More significant than the greater number of owls now known to exist, says the timber industry, is evidence that the species can live and breed in second-growth forests. By 1992, some 316 pairs of spotted owls had been found on private, managed, second-growth forests. “The reproductive success of these pairs is equal to or greater than for those located in more traditional habitat,” says Ross Mickey of the Northwest Forest Resource Council in a briefing paper for the Timber Summit this past April. The numbers don’t support this view, however. Those 316 pairs represent less than 8% of the known population, while second-growth forests represent 70% to 90% of all forests in the region. Further, even though we now know of more spotted owls than we knew about a few years ago, that doesn’t mean the population is increasing; it only means we’re studying them a lot more closely. Many experts say the population may still be in decline.

In addition to spotted owls, there is also concern about the marbled murrelet and native populations of anadromous salmon in the Pacific Northwest. The marbled murrelet is a small sea bird that spends its days fishing at sea, then flies inland up to 50 miles to nest. While the species is quite common in Alaska, where it nests in cliffs, it is rare in the Coast Range of northern California, Oregon, and Washington, where it nests on moss-covered branches of old-growth conifers. Once scientists learn more about the birds’ nesting requirements, there may well be set-asides for them. The decline in salmon and cut-throat trout populations in the region may also affect the timber industry, since stream siltation from logging contributes to the problem. The salmon situation is a little different than that of spotted owls and marbled murrelets since there is a large fishing economy dependent on the salmon resource—and thus an economic interest in ensuring the fish populations are not harmed.

While threatened species grab headlines, environmentalists point out that these are just indicators of a broader concern: that of ecosystems. It is really the old-growth ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest that needs protection. Indeed, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has said that he will seek to revise the Endangered Species Act to more effectively deal with ecosystems rather than single species.

Whole Log Export

Moving Douglas fir out from Oregon forests. The larger log is about seven feet in diameter at the butt end.

Mills have been redesigned in recent years to reduce waste and optimally produce lumber from small-diameter logs.

Another area of concern in the Pacific Northwest timber debate is the issue of whole-log export. In 1989, some 3.7 billion board feet of logs were exported from Washington and Oregon (73% of it from Washington), according to an Oregon State University Extension Service Report (February 1991). These two states account for 86% of the nation’s total log exports. Roughly 28% of Washington’s harvest and 11% of Oregon’s were exported in the late ’80s. Virtually all log exports today are from private timber lands. Export of raw logs from federal land has been banned since 1973 (with a few exceptions, including Alaskan timber). More recently, export of timber from state lands in Oregon and Washington has been banned. A few companies, including Boise Cascade, have corporate policies against log export, but most do not.

The policy question we have is whether or not log exports from

private lands should also be banned. Proponents of an export ban say that doing so would bring that timber to domestic mills, many of which are without enough timber because of logging restrictions of federal land. Opponents of an export ban argue that government should not tell private companies what to do. Most of the export, they argue, is from Washington, whose mills are not as desperate for logs as Oregon’s. They also suggest that a log export ban would harm port workers, since log exports account for a very large percentage of total exports in the region. Exporting logs employs about 1.3 workers per million board feet shipped annually, according to the OSU Extension Service—a total of about 2,500 people in Oregon alone (and port workers earn more than mill workers). But it can equally be argued that a ban of raw log exports would result in an increase of value-added lumber product exports, keeping those port workers employed, along with the mill workers who might otherwise lose their jobs.

Drawing Conclusions

All right, what’s the next step? Several recommendations are outlined below on two different levels: policy recommendations that deal with the big picture; and specific recommendations that relate to our design and construction decisions.

Published May 1, 1993

(1993, May 1). The Northwestern Timber Debate. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/northwestern-timber-debate