Fri, Feb

Timber Sale in Estacada, Ore., Area Has Potential for Peace

New ground is being broken in efforts to manage the Mount Hood National Forest in ways that don't end up in federal court.

Dec. 30--ESTACADA, Ore. -- New ground is being broken in efforts to manage the Mount Hood National Forest in ways that don't end up in federal court.

Since the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990, federal forest agencies and their friends and critics have argued in and out of Congress and the courts about the weight that should be put on environmental protection versus timber harvesting.

Nine timber-thinning sales totaling 16 million board feet are proposed in the upper Clackamas River watershed in 2005; three will feature stewardship contracting.

The stewardship contracts -- the first of their kind for the Mount Hood forest -- have a goal of getting small logs to sawmills while accomplishing more environmental projects than Congress has been financing. Stewardship contracting was authorized by Congress in 2002.

"We want to take baby steps," Jim Rice, forest products coordinator for the national forest, said of learning to use stewardship contracting.

Logging in the 19 Oregon and Washington national forests and in Bureau of Land Management stands was slashed after the owl listing to a fraction of pre-listing volumes. Meanwhile, thousands of acres that were clear-cut earlier have been growing hundreds of millions of trees.

Douglas firs, hemlocks and other trees in those areas have begun to reach a size attractive to the small-log sawmills that replaced the old-growth mills.

Those are among the trees the Forest Service will offer through stewardship contracts in which revenue from the logging is retained locally for fish, wildlife and other environmental enhancement projects rather than forwarded to the U.S. Treasury.

Stewardship contracting began in Oregon in the Corvallis-based Siuslaw National Forest in 2002, and thus far has avoided serious controversy. Loggers thin trees to levels set by the Forest Service, but unlike in the past, they or subcontractors are required to erase old, deteriorating roads, replace failed stream culverts or make other improvements to advance fish, wildlife and water quality.

With timber revenue in decline for more than a decade, Congress has appropriated less money for forest agencies to work on those projects. The stewardship program trades timber values for environmental projects performed by local people.

Similar to the other six proposed thinning sales, the three stewardship contracts will leave 80 to 120 trees per acre standing in thinnings of 40- to 50-year-old fir. The pattern is designed to encourage species diversity and variable spacing for wildlife and to leave trees that eventually become spotted owl habitat, Rice said.

A key to stewardship's succeeding is avoiding litigation that has stalled or killed many federal timber sales. As a way to encourage understanding and cooperation before stewardship sales are bid, the Forest Service formed Clackamas County Stewardship Partners with members representing public agencies, conservation groups and industry.

One of the functions of Stewardship Partners will be to recommend environmental projects outside the national forest that benefit resources within the forest. For example, replacing a broken culvert in a creek outside the forest could allow more salmon and steelhead to reach spawning habitat in the forest.

Rick Gruen, manager of Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District, said stewardship contracting has the potential for boosting environmental projects throughout the Clackamas, Molalla and Sandy river drainages.

And if stewardship spawns a more reliable level of small timber that can be logged without protests, "we could see interest by industry in creating more mill capacity and jobs in the county," Gruen said.

A key step was taken last week when the board of directors of Bark, a Portland-based forest conservation group, voted to not appeal the first three stewardship sales. Sandi Scheinberg, Bark executive director, is a Stewardship Partners member.

Scheinberg said the decision was made after the Forest Service agreed to require helicopter logging instead of road construction in one thinning unit and allow less road-building in the other two units.

Although Scheinberg in the past has urged an end to all logging in the forest, she said she is trying to keep an open mind about stewardship. "Everyone comes to the table with a different agenda, but I haven't been through a process like this before," she said.

"Wonderful," Lisa Norris, natural resources staff officer for the Mount Hood forest, said when told of Bark's decision. "We're trying to build a foundation for collaboration. What excites me is that we're all talking and learning together."

Norris said it's too soon to predict how often stewardship contracting will be used in the future. Timber representatives are cautious about performing work they aren't familiar with, she said.

Jeremy Beddingfield, timber manager for Floragon Forest Products in Molalla, is an industry member of Stewardship Partners. "We're optimistic this will work for all the parties involved. We have an interest to make it succeed," he said.

Floragon is one of the largest lumber stud mills in the nation with about 200 workers on three shifts. However, most of its logs come from private land because federal timber has been too big.

Beddingfield wouldn't say whether the company will bid on any of the stewardship sales. But they offer the 5- to 20-inch diameter logs that Floragon uses, he said.

To see more of The Oregonian, or to subscribe the newspaper, go to http://www.oregonian.com.© 2004, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.