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Background on Strategy E
Contribute to the conservation of diverse native plant and animal populations and their habitats in Oregon's forests

What do we mean by "diverse native plant and animal populations and their habitats?"
The scientific term for this concept is "biological diversity," which means having various kinds and types of living organisms. Managing for biological diversity requires maintaining a diversity of habitats and ecological processes at various spatial scales, from entire landscapes to specific localized habitats (Figure 13). It also includes understanding individual species populations and the genetic diversity of these species. The concept of biological diversity is necessarily very broad and therefore difficult to measure directly.
 
Why is the conservation of native forest plants and animals and their habitats important?
Oregonians value native forest plants and animals for the economic, scientific, educational, cultural, recreational, and aesthetic values that they provide. Maintaining healthy forest habitat and healthy native plant and animal communities is essential to economic vitality and environmental quality of life. In addition, the federal Endangered Species Act and other federal and state regulations require biological resource issues to be addressed.
 
Human activities can reduce, maintain, or enhance biological diversity. Both natural disturbances and human actions can affect biological diversity and need to be considered collectively to assess whether native plant and animal populations and their habitats are being adequately protected, maintained, and enhanced in Oregon's forests.
 
What characteristics of Oregon's forests affect native plants and animals and their habitats?
Stand age and structural composition are key forest characteristics that affect biological diversity. Since some plants and animals prefer young-forest conditions and others prefer older-forest conditions, a healthy, diverse forest landscape will be a mosaic of many different stand ages and structural components of native forest plants at appropriate scales.
 
Natural disturbances such as fire, wind, floods, landslides, insects, and diseases frequently alter these characteristics. Natural disturbance sometimes results in the conversion of older-forest stages to younger-forest stages, often with some remaining older-forest elements such as dead standing trees (snags) and fallen trees and logs (down wood) still present. These disturbances are vital processes of ecosystem renewal, creating pulses of nutrients and reorganizing ecosystem structures and processes.
 
The scale at which biological diversity is assessed is important. Some elements of biological diversity are best understood on a larger scale, that of watershed, basin, or region. The amount, size, and location of plant communities and the diversity of forest successional stages are important large-scale factors affecting biological diversity. The condition of plant communities across the landscape can be an index to the condition of individual species within them. For example, the abundance and vigor of certain plant communities can give better clues about the abundance and vigor of lichens, fungi, and invertebrates than can smaller-scale studies of individual species. Similarly, wildlife habitat types, areas of the landscape characterized by particular vegetation patterns, are used to determine the amount, diversity, and condition of wildlife habitat at these large scales.
 
Smaller scales are better for measuring some characteristics. Individual forest stands or even smaller sites such as patches of streamside vegetation, shrub communities, snags, wood on the forest floor, cavities in dead trees, and hardwood trees are key fine-scale habitat elements. In addition, some wildlife species need special habitat elements such as springs, rock outcrops, caves (bats, for example), and talus slopes (mountain goats).
 
What do we know about native Oregon forest plants and animals and their habitats?
The following list summarizes some key information about the current status of native forest plants and animals and their habitats in Oregon:
 
1. Because of the history of economic benefits derived from sustainably managing forests for commercial uses, combined with land use planning and forest practice laws, Oregon has been very successful in maintaining its forest land base.
 
2. The number of large, older trees in Oregon's forests has been decreasing, but changes, primarily in federal land management policies, could cause it to increase significantly in the future. For example, computer modeling studies suggest that the amount of older forests (200 years or older) in the Oregon Coast Range probably varied from approximately 24 percent to 73 percent coverage of the landscape prior to European settlement. Current old-growth levels are at about five percent; late-successional forests (80 to 200 years old) cover about 11 percent of the Coast Range. It is conceivable that coverage of old-growth forests in the Coast Range could return to presettlement levels as federal forest stands mature under existing management plans.
 
3. Oregon has lost more than 50 percent of its historical bottomland hardwood forests from conversion to agriculture, urbanization, and invasive exotic plants.
 
4. Restrictions or prohibitions on timber harvesting and other human activities currently exist on approximately one-third of Oregon's 28 million acres of forest.
 
5. Timber harvesting and fire suppression are altering forest structural diversity and stand age classes in different ways than would occur through natural disturbances such as wind, fire, and disease.
 
6. Roughly 77 percent of Oregon's forestland is at risk of losing key ecosystem components from uncharacteristic wildfire. Thirty-five percent is at high risk, while 42 percent is at moderate risk. Forests at risk include areas of federal forestland allocated to reserves for protection of ecological values, such as late-successional reserves.
 
7. Forest management in areas of western Oregon may be reducing the amount of young-forest types (successional stages) containing shrub communities, remnant snags, and down wood, which are important for some wildlife species.
 
8. Management activities have had a negative effect on certain native forest-dependent plants and animals and a positive effect on others.
 
9. Invasive non-native plants are changing Oregon forestlands, sometimes irreversibly damaging native plant and animal populations.
 
10. Oregon does not have adequate information regarding wildlife population trends and changes in the geographic ranges of wildlife species.
 
How do current government policies affect Oregon's native forest plants and animals and their habitats?
Although government policies affect forest plants and animals in many ways, Oregon does not have an integrated set of policies to address this topic across all land uses. Individual agencies address individual aspects of plant and animal population and habitat conservation, but Oregon has no comprehensive policy to ensure that biological diversity goals are being met through the combined management objectives of Oregon's public and private forest landowners.
 
In 1993, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife published the first statewide Oregon Wildlife Diversity Plan. The goal of the plan is to maintain Oregon's wildlife diversity by protecting and enhancing populations and habitats of native wildlife at self-sustaining levels throughout natural geographic ranges in Oregon. This plan is being implemented through the agency's Wildlife Diversity Program; however, budget reductions have greatly reduced the capacity of the agency to implement the program.
 
Oregon's land-use planning laws, particularly Goal 5,15 provide processes for local governments to address how some biological resources are protected from development, but protection policies differ for forest, agricultural, and developed lands. These policies are not coordinated or based on a common, comprehensive set of biological data.16 Even on forestlands, policies vary widely, from reserving areas from further human disturbance, to active management that retains desired proportions of forest structures over time at a landscape or ownership scale, to protection of unique individual sites such as threatened and endangered species habitat and streamside (riparian) areas, to mandating the retention of specific habitat structures and avoiding harm to certain plants and animals.
 
The Board of Forestry has an important role in contributing to the conservation of diverse native forest plants and animals and their habitats. Private forest landowners are required to protect certain habitat elements by complying with the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which is the tool for ensuring that significant Goal 5 resources are protected on forestlands. The Board of Forestry adopts forest practice rules to ensure that the "overall maintenance" of fish and wildlife is provided, while also providing specific protection to certain designated fish and wildlife habitat features.17
 
The board also plays a role through its oversight of state-managed forests. In 2001, the board completed the six-year public process of revising the Northwest Oregon State Forests Management Plan, which provides management direction for more than 615,000 acres of state forestland in northwestern Oregon, located in 12 counties. The plan uses an approach called structure-based management, which is designed to produce and maintain an array of forest stand structures across the landscape in a functional arrangement that provides environmental, economic, and social benefits. These include not only habitat for native plants and animals, but also sustainable timber harvests and local government revenue, a landscape that contributes to healthy aquatic systems, and a forest that provides for diverse recreational opportunities. Similar management plans are in place for Oregon's other state-managed forests.
 
Different forest ownerships can play different roles in providing a wide range of plant and animal habitat conditions. Within the regulatory limits of the Forest Practices Act, private lands are managed to meet individual landowner objectives, which often means their emphasis is on timber production (wood production forests). Most forests currently managed specifically for species conservation (reserved forests) are in reserves on federal forestland. Thus most older forest structures are on federal land, while mostly young and mid-aged forests are on private land. State forests are managed to provide a range of stand ages and structures, in part to meet biological diversity objectives (multiple-resource forests). The variety of forest types is expected to enhance native plant and animal habitat, but this expectation is not proven, because we have as yet no complete assessment of the conditions and trends of native plants and animals and their habitat.
 
Restrictions or prohibitions on timber harvesting and other human activities currently exist on approximately one-third of Oregon's 28 million acres of forest. Many of those acres are in federal reserves designed to protect biological diversity and water quality. These federal reserves are concentrated in three of the 20 habitat types in Oregon and are primarily located along the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains (Figure 14). Their location is dictated by federal ownership and may not be the highest-priority areas for the conservation of forest plant and animals. As a result, some habitat types may be over-represented and others may be under-represented in the current system of reserves and other protection and conservation strategies. In addition, reserve strategies currently do not address the potential for natural disturbances, through which Oregon's forests have evolved and to which they are adapted.
Environmental regulations also have an influence on the conservation of forest plants and animals. Sometimes these regulations have unintended effects. For example, the federal Endangered Species Act is intended to provide a framework to help people to identify species that are in danger of becoming extinct, understand why that is happening, and provide mechanisms to protect and enhance such species populations. However, if a forest landowner creates habitat suitable for threatened or endangered species, and then such a species occupies the site, Endangered Species Act regulations may severely restrict future economic use of the forestland without compensation to the landowner. This risk may create a strong economic disincentive to create or maintain such habitat and an incentive to change the land use.
 
Oregon needs to conduct a comprehensive, scientifically and politically accepted assessment of native forest plant and animal population and habitat conditions, trends, and associated risks across all land uses. The assessment would increase our knowledge of the dynamics of habitat ranges and population status of Oregon plant and animal species and help policymakers evaluate alternative strategies to manage native plant and animal species and their habitats. Such a statewide assessment will be a significant technical, financial, and political challenge. A focus on vascular plant species and vertebrate animal species would make the assessment more feasible.
 
Climate change, invasive plants, and population growth make it impossible to manage Oregon's forests as they existed before European settlement, even if this were a desired public policy. But Oregonians can better understand the biological diversity of all of Oregon's lands, and we can develop policies that balance statewide goals and priorities for the protection, maintenance, and enhancement of ecosystems and plant and animal species with other environmental, economic, and social needs.
 
What are the key interactions of this strategy with other strategies?
  • Any loss of forestland to other land uses directly reduces the amount of available plant and wildlife habitat and potentially increases the intensity of management on remaining forests. Forests managed for wood production provide many more plant and wildlife benefits than most forestlands converted to non-forest uses.
  • Under a continuation of current policies on federal and private lands, the amount of older forests in Oregon will increase from current levels. This increase will occur almost entirely on federal lands. At the same time, private forestlands will tend to remain in younger age classes as a result of timber management.
  • Many of the current federal forest reserves, particularly in eastern and southwestern Oregon, are in areas where the natural fire regimes have been moderately or severely altered. Some forests and wildlife habitats within these reserves are in jeopardy of uncharacteristic stand-replacement fires.
  • Invasive non-native plants threaten the native plant and animal diversity of Oregon's forests.
  • Long-term investments in forest resources are needed to maintain abundant fish and wildlife populations, biologically rich forests, and the significant social and economic benefits they provide. Clear and comprehensive plant and animal conservation policies that equitably address all land uses can provide greater certainty for forest landowners when making investment decisions.
  • Changes in global climate may affect the viability and distribution of native Oregon plant and animal species.
What are potential indicators to measure progress toward accomplishing this strategy?
1. Forest area by ecological type
 
2. Area of forest types by successional stage
 
3. Area by forest type in protected area categories
 
4. Status and population levels of rare, sensitive, threatened, or endangered native plants and animals.