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Sustainable Forests Speech
Sustainable Forest Speech
Governor John Kitzhaber´s Sustainable Forests Speech
October 18, 2001
Oregon State University

Good morning.
 
It is a pleasure to be here today with people who are on the cutting edge of the discussion about sustainable forests. I commend the Board of Forestry and the Department of Forestry for their leadership in this area.
 
Today I want to give you my own personal vision about sustainable forests to help facilitate this discussion. But first, what do we mean by "sustainable?"
 
I define sustainability as managing the use, development and protection of our environmental, social, and economic resources in a way and at a rate that enables people to meet their current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. What is important to understand about this definition is that it requires that we recognize the interdependence between our environmental, economic and community needs - that we find a balance between these often-competing values.
 
Imagine, if you will, three overlapping circles - one representing our economic needs, one representing our environmental needs and one representing our social or community needs. The area where the three circles overlap is the area of sustainability - the area through which run all the elements of a good quality of life: a healthy, functioning natural environment; a strong economy with jobs and job security; and safe, secure communities where people have a sense of belonging and purpose and a commitment to each other. These elements - these threads, which together weave the fabric of sustainability - are things we hold in common. They represent a common set of desires and aspirations that add value and quality to our lives.
 
Today, however - in ways both large and small - these threads are beginning to fray and unravel. Increasingly, we are viewing economic, environmental and community needs as separate, competing entities - mutually exclusive values, if you will. Of course, this perspective undermines sustainability because it creates a politics of scarcity - a zero-sum situation in which there must always be a winner and a loser.
 
We can see this unfolding in many ways: in the challenge of accommodating growth while maintaining livable communities; and in the tension between sprawl and development. Nowhere, however, is this more evident than in the conflict between natural resource extraction and environmental stewardship.
 
To find meaningful solutions, we must be willing to move beyond this zero-sum approach and conduct the debate on a higher plane. That is what sustainable forest management is all about and I believe that it can help move us beyond these conflicts.
 
I believe that sustainable forest management rests on a foundation of six key building blocks:
  1. Establishing a single overarching policy object which drives forest management plans;
  2. Reframing the debate between commercial forestry and environmental stewardship;
  3. Basing decisions on interdisciplinary science;
  4. Managing at the landscape level;
  5. Ensuring broad public involvement in and ownership of the management plan; and
  6. Redefining our relationship with our federal partners.

To illustrate these points I will use two examples from Oregon: the Eastside Forest Health Initiative and the management plan for the Tillamook-Clatsop State Forest.
 
Let’s start with eastern Oregon where we have begun to put in place a new strategy for the restoration of ecological health in the public forests. This initiative -- which includes all the forests of eastern Oregon with particular emphasis on the three million acre Blue Mountain Demonstration Area -- offers a working definition of environmental, economic and social sustainability.
 
But first, a brief history. At the beginning of my administration, I started looking at what could be done to try to improve the health of the federal lands on the east side of Oregon -- particularly the pine forests that have been ravaged by insects and disease.
 
Historically, these federal forests were blessed with huge stands of old growth pine covering millions of acres. For much of the last century, however, forest management policy was characterized by active fire suppression and harvesting of valuable old growth pine.
 
The legacy of past management on public lands is overstocked stands of young fir and pine, thousands of acres of dead and dying timber infested with insects, an absence of older forest habitat and a high risk of catastrophic fire.
 
The tragic outcome of these policies has been a significant reduction in watershed health and the destruction of habitat for sensitive species coupled with a catastrophic decline in employment for timber dependent communities.
 
What we were facing was political and legal gridlock while the health of the forest ecosystem, local timber mills and rural communities continued to decline. Each side in the debate operated from their deeply entrenched positions and pointed at the other as the culprit. The situation was a classic example of the black and white way in which the debate over the management of federal lands has historically been framed.
 
It became apparent that the status quo was not serving anyone: not the industry, not the environment, not the communities of Eastern Oregon. The challenge of getting beyond the gridlock depended on finding a common policy objective that could bring the stakeholders together. In this case, the objective was a healthy, functioning forest ecosystem - which became the underpinning and unifying principle of the forest health initiative.
 
To emphasize the importance of an overarching policy objective let me use the development of the management plan for the Tillamook-Clatsop State Forest in which the Department of Forestry was also striving to balance a range of important environmental, social and economic values through a strategy calling for five different types of stand structures across the landscape and over time. This "structure-based management" defined "stand targets" for the percentage of each stand structure which should, at any given time, comprise the landscape of these state forests.
 
Although this approach enjoyed some acceptance, the problem was that, while there was certainly a theoretical basis for the stand structure targets based on historic conditions in the forest, they were not precise and different stakeholders drew different conclusions about the plan.
 
The environmental community looked at the long-term impact of structure-based management and objected that there was no plan to create old growth forests. The industry looked ahead and determined that the proposed stand structure and harvest rotation would result in significantly less timber than would be available under a traditional commercial harvest protocol. This political tension - and the lack of broad ownership of the plan - threatened its long-term viability. It raised questions about its political sustainability.
 
In the end -- although the Board did adopt a structure-based strategy - it also acknowledged the necessity of an overarching policy objective by citing the need to first protect the health of forested watersheds as one of the "key goals" of the plan and by calling for watershed assessments as a means to implementing structure based management. The objective they chose was watershed health. Why? Because a healthy watershed is the common building block from which all beneficial uses of the forest flow: clean water, a thriving forest, abundant timber, and healthy forest species. Furthermore, the health of a watershed can be to a large extent scientifically measured and monitored.
 
It is important to recognize that focusing on watershed health does not mean that we are elevating the importance of one value above another. Rather, it is the common denominator for all the values and acts as a guidepost by which we can shape our active management efforts in the context of the other values.
 
We cannot provide sustainable forest products, assure clean water and provide habitat for species unless we first have a healthy functioning ecosystem. The three legs upon which the strategy stands - social, environmental and economic - are all interwoven and are dependent first on a healthy, functioning watershed.
 
We arrived at a similar conclusion in our effort to find new ways to both restore the health of Eastside forest ecosystems and provide wood to communities in an environmentally sound manner. Our effort began in March of 1995 when I appointed a panel of highly respected scientists from throughout the Northwest. Faculty from Oregon State University, the University of Washington and the private sector reached a remarkable consensus of opinion on what it would take to restore health to the forests of Eastern Oregon. Their recommendations were embodied in a broadly supported set of eleven guiding principles.
 
This "11-point plan" calls for using active management to promote ecosystem health, while avoiding areas of high public controversy. Restoration treatments include understory and commercial thinning; road maintenance, closure and obliteration; prescribed burning; noxious weed treatment; and stream rehabilitation. It also emphasizes adaptive management through monitoring.
 
This eastside strategy has helped reframe the debate between commercial forestry and environmental stewardship by focusing on areas of broad agreement instead of conflict and thus taking advantage of the "area of sustainability" where environmental, economic and community needs overlap.
 
The objective of this management plan is to improve the health of the forest ecosystem, including watershed health and habitat for forest species. At the same time, a by-product of many of the thinning treatments would be wood for local mills and value-added products to help stabilize rural communities. Thinning and prescribed burns would also reduce the risk of catastrophic fires that has increased significantly as forest health has deteriorated.
 
Essentially, we moved the debate from the question of "management or no management" to a discussion of "howto manage" these lands. I suggest that by using good science and by focusing on reducing risk -- risk to the watershed, risk to sensitive species and risk to the local economy -- we can build public and scientific support for active forest management.
 
Our effort is based on a strong underpinning of multidisciplinary science which we use in a number of ways. On the federal lands, for example, we want to know what these systems historically were like to inform us as to what the watersheds need to function properly. For instance, we know that is appropriate to mimic past fire regimes and thin forests at lower and mid-elevations but not the higher elevations. Historically, higher elevation forests burned infrequently, and when they did they did not have the low-intensity creeping fires -- they were stand-replacement fires.
 
Because of the importance we placed on restoring healthy, functioning watersheds, our work is based on a commitment to management at the landscape level - recognizing that the ecologic "landscape" does not stop at political boundaries or at those based on ownership.
 
To learn how to do this across ownerships and land use types, in June of 1999 we set up the 3 million acre Blue Mountain Demonstration Project - with only about half of it in federal ownership. Within the demonstration area federal, state, local and tribal agencies are working with private landowners, environmentalists and community stakeholders with the shared objective of improving the health of both forest ecosystems and local economies.
 
In addition, we recognized that having the best science is not enough -- that we also needed to blend in the values of the local population if the plan is to be sustainable. As a consequence, we established an "eastside forest health advisory panel," consisting of a diverse group of eastern Oregon citizens and stakeholders who helped to develop the "eleven point plan" and then to identify and prioritize projects based on the plan.
 
In the first years, the eastside panel identified nearly 60 Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management projects that exemplified the 11-point plan. This offered a clear demonstration that it is possible to engage in broadly supported watershed and forest restoration work that both improves ecosystem health and provides some economic benefits to local communities.
 
Unfortunately, the volume of the wood flowing from this work has been much less than expected. This has been due to a combination of tough markets, the traditional size of these thinning treatments and the difficulty getting projects through ESA consultation and other federal procedures and processes.
 
As a consequence, the Eastside Forest Health Initiative has not, to date, fulfilled its promise of helping to stabilize local economies. Even mills that have made the investment to retool to take smaller diameter logs are struggling. Ochoco Forest Products - an early and enthusiastic supporter of the effort - withdrew its support last year and closed its mill in Prineville this past summer.
 
Joseph Forest Products in Joseph - retooled to take small trees off the Willowa-Whitman National Forest - may face the same fate. With the Wallowa-Whitman choked with overstocked stands of young pine and fir - and with the widely acknowledged need to thin out these stands to improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires - the inability to connect the dots and get the wood to the mills has led to a growing frustration with the effort.
 
While we should not conclude at this point that the Eastside Forest Health Initiative is a failure -- it does appear to be following the course of other similar collaborative initiatives like the Applegate Partnership, the Quincy Library Group and the Grand Canyon Forest Trust.
 
All of these efforts are built on collaboration at the local level among people working together to solve shared problems on behalf of a shared place. All have enjoyed initial enthusiasm and support from the federal land management agencies. And all have been frustrated to one degree or another by the unwillingness or inability of these same agencies to allow the collaborators to actually make decisions on the ground.
 
Dan Kemmis, in his recently published book This Sovereign Land, characterizes this phenomenon as the inevitable collision between local collaborative problem solving and the "procedural republic" - the complex administrative processes which try to ensure that all stakeholders have equal access to federal decision makers.
 
As Kemmis puts it: "At the bottom of this difficulty lies the fact that the collaboration movement represents a form and philosophy of decision making fundamentally different from the decision structure in which the land management agencies are embedded. One is an inherently decentralized, democratic form of governing; the other is inherently centralized and hierarchical. The effort to make something like collaborative stewardship an integral part of Forest Service operations, for example, cannot really succeed unless the agency is willing to turn some actual decision-making and management authority over to the people who are doing the collaboration."
 
This gets us into the century old debate over the management of public lands in the West. On one side is the position bluntly articulated by George Coggins, a public land legal authority: "The public lands are public. They are the property of all of the people, not just those who live in their immediate vicinity. They are national assets, not local storehouses to be looted … "
 
At the other end of the spectrum is the position represented by the "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s which held that all federal land was state property to do with as states pleased. The truth -- and the future of sustainable forestry -- lie somewhere in between these two positions.
 
There is no doubt but that the exploitation of public lands for private gain is an established part of western history. Indeed, the conservation movement in America can trace its roots to efforts in 1870 to prevent corporate interests from abusing homesteading laws - passed to help settle the frontier - in order to gain access to public lands for the extraction of natural resources. These were not sustainable land management practices.
 
But it is equally true that the current procedure-bound, litigious, cumbersome, glacial process that has engulfed federal land management agencies does not produce sustainable land management practices either. As evidence, look at the sad state of health the public forests of Eastern Oregon and, indeed, of the forests throughout the Intermountain West. Or consider the fact that nearly 10 years after the listing of the Snake River Chinook under the Endangered Species Act, there is no recovery plan in place.
 
I do not support turning public lands over to local politics. There arelegitimate national interests to be served. National environmental legislation - like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act - were enacted for a reason … and a good reason: to secure the long term and sustainable health of the ecosystem we all share.
 
I believe in the need for this strong framework of federal environmental laws and in having the ability to enforce them. But I also believe -- just as strongly -- that we need to have both the wisdom and the courage to periodically reevaluate the effectiveness of our tools and the way in which we have traditionally applied them.
 
For example, with over 1000 species listed -- the lengthy, complex and contentious process of actually developing recovery plans under the ESA will doom many of these species to extinction long before anything happens on the ground. Likewise, the processes that guide and shackle our federal land management agencies are leading to similar results in terms of the health of our forest ecosystems.
 
What I am suggesting to you today is that unless we address this fundamental problem - not with our environmental laws themselves, but with the processes and procedures by which they are applied -- we will never achieve our goal of sustainability.
 
These six building blocks of sustainable forest management are within our grasp -- but fitting them into a solid foundation will require a new vision. The Board of Forestry has an opportunity to help create that vision through a public discussion about sustainability - and about concluding a new social contract among urban and rural Oregonians that contains social, environmental and economic components.
 
Unless Oregon can come to agreement on this vision we are destined to lose more of our forest to other uses - or to simply not manage them at all - and thus fail to realize all of the values they can potentially provide. Looking out at this great audience today - I am confident that will not happen.