Halloween is a great time to tell scary stories. I have one to tell you, about millions upon millions of gray ghosts blackened by fire, ravaged by insects and disease, or dead from lack of water. These are Oregon’s “zombie trees.”
According to an analysis commissioned by OFRI, more than 350 million individual trees are standing dead in the 14 million acres of national forestland in Oregon. The bad news? The number of dead trees is expected to increase. This would provide more fuel for catastrophic wildfires such as last summer’s Eagle Creek and Chetco Bar fires that blanketed the Portland metro area and southern Oregon with unhealthy levels of smoke.
The story I’m about to tell you is about the frightening number of dead trees in our national forests. It is based on data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis program that was collected in 2010 and 2013 across all forestland in Oregon.
This story could have a happy ending, but it may not. To put it into context, let’s start by discussing how much forestland in Oregon is owned by the Forest Service compared to other ownership classes.
About half of Oregon is forested, totaling nearly 30 million acres, giving rise to Oregon’s reputation as a green state. Forest ownership is dominated by the federal government, which manages about 60 percent of all forestland in the state. The National Forest System (NFS) is the largest class of forestland, with 48 percent of the total. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other federal lands comprise 12 percent. Private and Native American ownership account for 36 percent, with state and local government ownership at 4 percent.
The chart above shows the breakdown of the forestland into various ownership classes.
Forestland is classified as land having at least 10 percent cover of trees. Timberland refers to forestland productive enough to be economically managed for timber production and not legislatively or administratively reserved. Reserved land is withdrawn from timber harvest.
Most Oregon forestland is classified as timberland. Most of the low-productivity and reserved forestland is federally owned. As we shall see, not all forestland is created equal – ownership matters.
Number of zombie trees by ownership class
The scary part of our story starts when we compare living and dead trees per acre by ownership class. The chart below shows that National Forest System lands have 17 percent dead or zombie trees, compared to 11 percent for other public lands and 8 percent for private and Native American-owned lands. The NFS having twice as many zombie trees per acre as private lands may not seem that bad, but when you consider that there is a lot more National Forest land than any other class, it becomes quite terrifying, as we shall see.
In addition to different ratios of living to dead trees in their forests, the ownership classes of Oregon forests also vary greatly in the amount of timber harvest. The chart below shows annual Oregon timber harvest by ownership class from 1980 to 2015, using data collected by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
In 1985, annual timber harvest in Oregon was over 8 billion board feet, with more than half coming from federal forests. After the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act and the subsequent Northwest Forest Plan, total Oregon timber harvest has dropped to about 4 billion board feet, with only about 15 percent coming from federal lands. The federal forests that represent about 60 percent of Oregon forestland now account for only about 15 percent of the state’s timber harvest. From the 1980s to present, private-land timber harvest has held fairly stable at about 3 billion board feet per year. Private and Native American forests, which represent 36 percent of Oregon’s forests, account for 76 percent of the timber harvest.
One simple conclusion that can be reached at this point is that forests that are more actively managed based on the number of timber harvests have fewer dead trees.
National Forest System trees per acre
The link between active management and tree mortality can be further examined by comparing zombie trees on NFS timberland to those on NFS reserved lands, as shown in the following chart. There is a 126 percent difference in dead trees per acre between NFS land open for management and land reserved from management.
National Forest System dead inventory
Remember when we started this story and talked about dead trees per acre? You may have thought that 17 percent zombie trees is not that different than 11 percent or 8 percent dead trees. The next chart may convince you otherwise.
This chart compares the total dead-tree volume on NFS lands to the live volume on other ownerships. The standing-dead volume on NFS lands is about half the live volume on all other federal lands. It is about 50 percent more than the live volume on all state and local forestlands, and it is nearly one-third of the total live volume on private and Native American forestlands. This is obviously more important than the difference in a few percentage points of zombie trees.
Annual growth vs. annual harvest, by ownership class
Another way to think about the level of active management is to compare annual growth with annual timber harvest. Net annual growth is the total or gross growth minus mortality. It is obvious to most folks that forests can only be sustained in the long term if annual timber harvest is less than or equal to net annual growth. If harvest is greater than growth over time, the standing forest volume will be diminished. This is typically called overcutting.
The left bar of the chart below shows net annual growth for various classes of timber ownership. The right bar shows average timber harvest for 2011 to 2013 for the same ownership classes. For every ownership, net annual growth exceeds harvest. However, on federal forestlands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, timber harvest is only about 8 percent of growth.
Annual mortality vs. annual harvest
It is ironic that there appears to be an inverse relationship between annual mortality and annual timber harvest among Oregon’s forest ownership classes. Private and Native American forestlands, which have the highest timber harvest rate at 75 percent of total growth, have only 11 percent mortality. Federal forestlands have a timber harvest rate of about 9 percent of total growth, but have a mortality rate of about 29 percent.
Actively managed forests have far fewer zombie trees than forests that are less actively managed. Forests that are unmanaged quickly become overcrowded as trees grow and new trees seed in. Overcrowded forests have more dead trees and an increased volume of mortality. These dead trees also fuel any wildfires that occur. Overcrowded forests burn uncharacteristically hotter and have increased tree mortality as compared to managed forests.
Federal mortality vs. harvest
In discussing the difference in dead trees per acre on NFS reserved forestlands compared to timberlands, it may have appeared that we can do little to solve the zombie tree problem because it is mainly on reserved lands, which can’t be actively managed because they are set aside for non-timber purposes. The chart below shows that this is not the case.
This chart shows standing dead, annual mortality and annual harvest on federal lands and compares reserved to non-reserved forestlands. While dead trees per acre are much higher on reserved forestlands, the acreage of non-reserved is much larger. More than 70 percent of the standing dead timber on federal lands is on non-reserved lands open to harvest.
Conclusion: How to combat zombie trees
It’s fun to use the zombie image to discuss dead trees and mortality on National Forests. But this is a serious problem. There is an alarmingly high amount of mortality on National Forests that have low levels of timber harvest. I believe these are related issues, and the charts presented support this. Forests that have higher levels of timber harvest have lower levels of mortality.
The cure for zombie trees is active forest management. Forest policy does not always allow active management on federal lands. However, in the name of forest health, we should pursue active management strategies whenever and wherever possible.
We can combat the zombie tree apocalypse – with active forest management.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry
In early October, the OFRI board of directors hosted nearly 60 Oregon policymakers on a tour of Portland area mass timber buildings. Among the participants were State Treasurer Tobias Read, representatives from about 15 Oregon legislative offices, and key staff representing three members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, plus county commissioners, city planners and building code officials. Other tour attendees included reporters from the Capital Press and Portland Business Tribune.
We visited The Future of Tall, a new exhibit at the World Forestry Center, and heard from architects, developers and contractors about the virtues of advanced wood products and mass timber construction. The group toured four mass timber buildings: First Tech Federal Credit Union’s new Oregon headquarters under construction in Hillsboro (you can watch a video documenting the project here); the Leland James building being refurbished in Portland’s Slabtown neighborhood by Cairn Pacific and Capstone Partners; the 38 Davis building that’s home to Ankrom Moisan Architects; and Carbon12, the nearly-complete condo project developed by the Kaiser Group.
The enthusiasm for the topic among our tour hosts was palpable. One developer who had other obligations the day of the tour, Cairn Pacific’s Noel Johnson, even made the effort to deliver insights via video.
Ben Kaiser, the Carbon12 developer, told the crowd that his building is decades ahead of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum rating for sustainable construction. He explained that this is thanks to the carbon sequestration properties of Carbon12’s wood frame and the carbon emissions avoided by choosing wood over concrete and steel for the majority of its structural system. And by the way, it took Oregon timberlands just 6.1 minutes to grow the 24,411 cubic feet of wood used for the project.
LEVER Architecture’s Doug Sheets and Tom Cody of the development company project^ talked about how fire and seismic testing proved their Framework project, set to break ground later this year, is just as safe as any other high-rise structure. The project utilizes a unique post-tensioned wood rocking wall system designed to improve the building’s seismic resiliency and allow it to be re-occupied in short order after a major earthquake, unlike the vast majority of buildings.
The project architect for the new First Tech Federal Credit Union building, Scott Barton-Smith with the Portland architecture firm Hacker, spoke during the tour. He extolled wood’s renewability and carbon storage capabilities but added, “The best reason to use wood on a project like this is, it’s really beautiful. Every time I come out here, I feel like I really want to work in this building. It’s hard to imagine a single decision you would make about a material in a building that’s as impactful as using wood.”
Meanwhile Chris Evans, project executive on the job for general contractor Swinerton Builders, stated simply, “We’re all in” on wood construction.
Hearing developers, architects and contractors sing wood’s praises was gratifying. It was also, it seems, effective. One participant from the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability told me, “Thanks a ton for the great tour the other day. For me, it was a real mind-changer.”
Now that’s what I like to hear.
Director of Forest Products
Is anyone experiencing cognitive dissonance about Oregon’s forests? In other words, are you having one or more conflicting thoughts about how we use, manage and protect our forests for all the values we hold dear? Here are a few thoughts to get you started:
- We’re standing on the threshold of the “wood century,” where we could use environmentally friendly, advanced wood products to build the structures in which we live, work and play – but we lack the raw material supply to make it happen.
- Statewide, we have as much forest acreage as we had in the mid-20th century, but on our national forests more timber is dying and burning up than is being harvested.
- The outdoor recreation industry is set to explode and create new economic opportunities in rural areas, but who enjoys recreating in smoke and wildfire?
Let me elaborate on these points, starting with mass timber. A new study published by Oregon Best estimates that mass timber manufacturing has the potential to create 2,000 to 6,100 direct jobs in Oregon, but “access to the raw material is uncertain and a heavily debated topic.” Generally, increased use of wood products would be a good thing, as they require less fossil fuel energy to manufacture – and, unlike other materials, wood stores carbon, removed from the atmosphere as CO2 during tree growth.
Data from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory Analysis shows that the amount of forestland in Oregon has remained relatively constant since 1953. However, the FIA data also shows that on federal lands, only about 9 percent of the annual timber growth is harvested each year. The amount of timber that dies because of insects, disease or fire offsets annual growth by about 30 percent.
The outdoor recreation economy is gaining traction in Oregon and around the country. In Oregon alone, it generated $12.8 billion in consumer spending and supported 141,000 jobs in 2012. In response, the 2017 Oregon Legislature created a brand-new Office of Outdoor Recreation within the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, set to begin Jan. 1.
Unfortunately, for those who love to hike, bike, camp, and fish or hunt, our treasured forest recreation destinations are being reshaped by massive fires and we’re getting choked by smoke.
According to a Sept. 23 Statesman Journal article, this summer’s Oregon wildfires burned an area the size of Rhode Island, but the real loss was to the “mountains and forests Oregonians traditionally pilgrimage to each summer and fall, including the Columbia River Gorge, Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters.” In an Oregonian article, Oregon State University College of Forestry Professor John Bailey says Oregonians should get used to wildfire and smoke. Bailey says, “The fuel mosaic we have out there is unprecedented ... We’ve created forest types we’ve never had. Those acres are connected to each other in ways they never were, and they are burning in ways they’ve never burned before.”
Cognitive dissonance is the tension that comes from holding two or more conflicting thoughts. Most Oregonians want timber for wood products, landscapes for recreation, and sustainable forests that provide clean air and water, but they also want less smoke and fewer fires – especially the catastrophic ones.
With a statewide population 80 times larger than what it was when Oregon became a state, we need to end the dissonance and figure things out. Perhaps it’s time to have a constructive conversation about what we want our forests and landscapes to look like in the future.
To paraphrase the old saying, if we are not able to learn from history – and especially our mistakes – then we are doomed to repeat them. We are Oregonians. We can do better.
For the forest,
Public opinion polling in Oregon shows that many people are concerned about the use of herbicides in forestry and especially the aerial application of herbicides. However, when people learn about the rules that govern herbicide application on forests; the care with which herbicides are applied in order to protect water resources, wildlife, workers and neighbors; the expertise of the foresters and applicators; and the degree of application precision allowed with the latest technology, people are usually much more accepting of the practice.
OFRI is investing resources in helping the public and policymakers understand herbicide use and safety through our public education program. We are also helping foresters, landowners and applicators learn about the latest herbicide application technology and best practices through our landowner education program.
Two current efforts that OFRI is involved in to educate forest landowners about herbicide application are the Pacific Northwest Forest Vegetation Management Conference and the Herbicides Best Practices for Oregon Forest Management webinars. OFRI has a bunch of co-sponsors for these programs, including Oregonians for Food & Shelter, Oregon Forest & Industries Council, Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, Washington Forest Protection Association and the Western Forestry and Conservation Association.
Here are a few more details about these two educational opportunities:
PNW Forest Vegetation Management Conference: This conference is modeled on the successful Forest Vegetation Management Conference held each winter in northern California. We hope to make the PNW Forest Vegetation Management Conference an annual event that meets the educational needs of foresters, landowners and applicators in Oregon and Washington. The theme of the inaugural 2017 conference is "Evolution of Science and Emerging Technology of Herbicide Application.” It is scheduled for Nov. 29–30 at the Holiday Inn in Wilsonville. In addition to presentations by academics, the agenda includes presentations and panel discussions by practicing foresters, applicators and chemical company representatives. There will also be vendor displays and plentiful networking opportunities. Pesticide recertification credits are being sought from Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho. OFRI is underwriting reduced registration fees for Oregon Small Woodlands Association and Oregon Tree Farm System members.
Herbicide Best Practices for Oregon Forest Management (recorded webinars): This webinar series was broadcast live in June 2016, and recordings are available to view for a one-time registration fee. The series consists of four two-hour sessions, each covering a different theme: why do we spray?, pre-operations planning, managing the day of the event and being a good neighbor. The sessions offer short presentations by various experts, but much of the time is devoted to discussions by foresters who manage herbicide projects. Registrants will gain access to a resource guide that includes a number of best practices checklists for assessing, planning and implementing spray projects. One-time registration and payment of $100 per viewer allows unlimited access to the videos.
Please consider attending the PNW Forest Vegetation Management Conference and viewing the Herbicide Best Practices for Oregon Forest Management webinars. Improving our skills in herbicide application will help us earn public trust of herbicide use in forestry.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry