EUGENE, Ore. — There's nothing modest about this proposal an effort to breach the gridlock over logging on public lands in Western Oregon.
Oregon State University forestry students say they have come up with a plan that would increase logging, protect old growth, end clear-cutting, allow forests to naturally regenerate, diversify stands for the benefit of more species and even reimburse the counties where the forests are located for the ecological services such as carbon storage that the forests provide.
To satisfy all those competing interests is a tall order.
The students developed their ideas under the guidance of a couple of veterans of the Pacific Northwest's forest wars: Norman Johnson and Jerry Franklin.
For those new to the debate, Johnson, a professor of forest ecosystems and society at Oregon State University, and Franklin, a professor of ecosystem analysis at the University of Washington were among the "gang of four" who came up with the current management strategy known as the Northwest Forest Plan.
That plan pledged substantial logging plus compliance with environmental laws, but critics from both sides say it never lived up to those promises.
The plan adopted by the Clinton administration in the early '90s got some logging on public forests from Washington to California going again after it had been brought to a virtual standstill by lawsuits aimed at protecting at-risk species that rely on the biggest, oldest trees for their survival.
But the timber harvest under that plan never met projections, and subsequent lawsuits by environmental groups raising concerns about proposed clear-cutting, plus lawsuits from the timber industry over lagging harvests, have left federal agencies pursuing low-yield thinning projects because they are the least likely to be challenged.
The debate over what to do or not to do on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's 2.2 million acres of Western Oregon forests has been particularly difficult because federal law going back to 1937 promised a percentage of revenue to the 18 counties where the forests are located.
With logging seriously reduced on these lands, counties have had to rely on fill-in-the-gap funding from Congress to pay for services, but that money will run out by 2012.
A BLM plan written during the Bush administration that would have increased logging was promptly yanked by the Obama administration.
The BLM is looking at a series of committees and advisory groups to come up with a new strategy. For now, that leaves the Northwest Forest Plan in place.
But Johnson's 35 students, who worked on the proposal as part of a senior project, have come up with what they say is another way forward. They don't propose dividing the federal landscape into reserves of old trees safe from harvest, and places where clear-cutting can go forward, the basic strategy of the Northwest Forest Plan.
Instead, based on work published last year by Johnson and Franklin, they divide the landscape into the "moist forests" of Western Oregon and the "dry forests" of Central Oregon.
Moist forests the Douglas fir and Western cedar forests experience fewer but more catastrophic fires that take out whole stands of trees. Dry forests experience more frequent lower intensity fires with many trees surviving, Johnson said.
"You wouldn't have whole stands of uniform ages created," on dry forests, he said. "You'd have stands of trees of many different ages."
Those differences would guide how the forests are managed, Johnson said.
But some simple rules would apply.
No trees considered "old growth," at more than 150 years of age, would be harvested.
While harvests would be allowed on lands already identified as available for logging, at least 25 percent of the trees on a site would be left uncut.
Instead of replanting, natural species regeneration would be allowed.
The monoculture of Douglas fir plantations that result from replanting would be replaced by early successional forests with a range of shrubs and trees, a landscape pattern in short supply right now but of high value to a range of species such as songbirds, deer and elk, Johnson said.
Timber harvests would include some mature and more valuable trees and would be managed to provide a steady, perpetual, and predictable income.
That kind of harvest would produce about 20 percent of the timber revenue the land historically provided, but Johnson believes it would be a sustainable amount.
The counties would continue to be reimbursed by the federal government, recognizing the value of the standing forests, Johnson said.
Student research concluded that BLM lands store huge amounts of carbon, and also provide millions of dollars a year in recreational value fishing, hunting, camping, wildlife viewing that people would be willing to pay for, but currently don't have to.
"These O&C lands are serving major public services for which the counties get nothing," Johnson said. "That's at least part of the justification for providing the counties with a permanent federal allocation in addition to revenue from timber harvest."
Johnson and his students have taken the proposal to the BLM, suggesting that it be tested on a trial basis on a portion of forests in Western Oregon.Comment on this story
Whether the forest lovers both those who prefer their trees horizontal and those who like them vertical will embrace the approach remains to be seen.
Johnson and Franklin are talking it up among the usual suspects, Oregon's Congressional delegation, county commissioners, industry groups and environmentalists.
"It's a serious proposal or I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you about it," Johnson said.
And he has nothing but praise for his students, who worked on it for months.
"It was the hardest class I've ever taught and also the most invigorating," he said.