In Oregon, huge swaths of the Willamette National Forest, perhaps as much as 12,000 acres, has stands of trees less than 40 years old that have never been thinned. The firs are crowded together, making it hard for sunlight to reach them. Competition for resources has made them susceptible to insects, disease, blowdowns and snow breakage. Trees that should be 13 to 14 feet apart are suffocating just eight feet from their neighbors.
The U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with the North Santiam Watershed Council, is working with companies in the region to establish a special forest products industry to thin the stands and harvest products such as moss, boughs, posts and poles, logs and firewood.
The agency, the Council and the North Santiam Chamber of Commerce are encouraging businesses to form a cooperative to take advantage of the commercial opportunities.
“We’ve managed timber in the Willamette National Forest for 100 years, but we’ve never tried anything like this,” Forest Services natural resources supervisor Darren Cross said. “We’re not trying to put things back. Instead we’re trying to imagine what (the forest) will look like in 30, 50 or 100 years.
“A traditional timber harvest is not workable. But what does different look like? This is not the way we normally do business in the Willamette National Forest. We normally do timber sales.”
There are nearly as many questions about the project as there are tree to thin, such as How would sales be administered with multiple companies and industries involved? Who would take care of the debris, or slash, that would be left behind? Who gets access to the stand first? Could a cooperative of industry members be formed to work together on the project? And how quickly can regulatory issues be resolved so folks can get to work?
“Everything I got is riding on this,” said Mike Chastain of M&M Fire Fuels in Salem. “I like working in the district and working with you folks. Why can’t I just get in there and get to work? What can we do to get things along?”
“How many private companies are willing to step up and help?” Chastain asked. “This is an opportunity to rebuild the forest products industry from the ground up. Why not re-invent this industry?”
The National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the U.S. Forest Service, has provided a $24,000 grant to study the issue.