IMAGE: THINNED AREA IN FOREST
Kathy Fletcher  /  USFS
This area within the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon was recently logged as part of a thinning project that even has support from some environmentalists.
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updated 3/21/2006 2:53:29 PM ET 2006-03-21T19:53:29

It's a raw March morning in the Oregon Coast Range, and melting snow is dripping from the trees. Cocooned in a waterproof suit and insulated boots, timber cruiser Pat Barnes sights through his laser range-finder at the slender gray trunk of a Douglas fir.

Barnes and his working partner, Vince Hunter, are calculating wood volume for a timber sale on the Siuslaw National Forest. Likely to start in the summer of 2007, the thinning operation will remove a projected 3 million board feet of lumber from a 230-acre tract about 15 miles east of Waldport in Lincoln County.

"We're going to open it up," Barnes says.

And that seems to be just fine with all concerned.

Even as environmentalists and timber interests are squaring off for a fresh fight over salvage logging in Southern Oregon's 2002 Biscuit burn, here on the Siuslaw the two camps are coming together to back sales such as this one.

While not unique, it's a sharp contrast to the recent war of words touched off by conflicting studies on post-fire reforestation coming out of Oregon State University.

'Past that point' of conflict
"Salvage is one of those issues where everybody talks past each other and few people are totally honest with themselves," said Wayne Hoffman, coordinator of the Newport-based MidCoast Watershed Council.

"In this forest I think we are past that point. Sales are not being appealed. There's nobody sitting in a tree, and there hasn't been for a long time."

The reason is simple, said Todd Merritt, a log buyer for Georgia-Pacifics Philomath sawmill: "There's common ground. Everybody's getting what they want."

IMAGE: DOUGLAS FIR STAND
Kathy Fletcher  /  USFS
The Siuslaw National Forest is thinning areas like this stand of younger Douglas fir, as opposed to old growth forest.
Loggers get trees to sell to sawmills. Sawmills get logs to saw.

The Siuslaw National Forest gets much-needed revenues, all of which will stay close to home under a new government stewardship program aimed at stream protection and habitat restoration. Based on the price of another recent sale, this one could clear close to $500,000.

Environmentalists get thinning operations rather than clearcuts, which they see as a step toward restoring an old growth forest that's been heavily logged.

And while thinning means cutting trees, it's a form of logging that green groups seem to have embraced, at least on the Siuslaw. Even the Oregon Natural Resources Council, a dogged opponent of numerous federal timber sales over the years, has given its blessing to thinning operations here.

Activist: Thin to let other trees grow
Doug Heiken, the group's Western Oregon field rep, said ONRC supports weeding out Douglas fir plantations to give the remaining trees more room to grow and suppressed native species a chance to recover.

At the same time, he admits it hasn't always been an easy sell.

"We're still educating our members," Heiken said. "It takes some adjustments of the normal environmental thought process."

The tract Barnes and Hunter were preparing recently is a unit of the Cascade Thin.

Forty years ago, this slope was clearcut and replanted with Douglas fir. Now those trees have grown to heights approaching 100 feet, with trunks 12 to 20 inches across.

But this stand has also grown so crowded that the trees have stopped adding girth. While they still race each other skyward to reach the life-giving sunlight, they've stopped putting on wood.

It's typical of much of the Siuslaw National Forest, an elongated, patchy belt of coastal woodlands that stretches between Coos Bay and Tillamook.

Around 200,000 acres — roughly a third of the Siuslaw — was clearcut between the 1960s and 1980s, forest officials say. Those tracts were replanted as Douglas fir plantations, with as many as 400 seedlings to the acre.

Thinning by the numbers
Now many of those stands have reached the point where they need to be thinned to remain healthy, and the Siuslaw National Forest, short-staffed after years of shrinking budgets, is scrambling to get the cut out.

"We've got a lot of those coming on line," said Ron Shelton, a timber sale administrator for the forest. "We're kind of behind the curve on that."

While the Cascade Thin is a relatively small sale, it's part of a modest resurgence of logging on the Siuslaw, a timber-producing juggernaut that was sending 350 million board feet a year to the mills as recently as the early 1990s.

Then came the Northwest Forest Plan, which designated most of the Siuslaw's 630,000 acres as critical habitat for the northern spotted owl and other old growth-loving species. Almost overnight, the cut plunged to around 5 million board feet.

For the past few years it's hovered at around 20 million to 30 million board feet, but next year it's slated to rise sharply.

"We project it to go to 60 to 70 million board feet by '07," Shelton said.

Industry retools
That's an encouraging development for people like Georgia-Pacific's Merritt, who sees it as a way to keep raw material costs down for his sawmill.

"It's kind of the old supply and demand deal — the more supply that's out there, the cheaper it's going to be," Merritt said. "The fact that the Siuslaw is able to get some timber out is pretty important."

Now that much of the Northwest timber industry has retooled for small logs, he added, thinning sales like the Cascade are much more attractive than they once were.

"Small logs bring in as many dollars as big logs do," Merritt said. "That didn't use to be the case."

And since salvage logging and cutting old growth remain such politically charged issues, Merritt can't see why more federal forests aren't putting up as many thinning sales as the Siuslaw.

"This is the forest that's doing it right," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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