Some of the key players have changed, but the battles over Oregon State University’s research forests continue unabated.
Fueled by a controversial old-growth cut in the McDonald Forest in May 2019 that felled trees more than 250 years and at least one above 400 years, activists are seeking a logging moratorium as well as more transparency in the planning process for the forests.
OSU, meanwhile, has changed its leadership roster. Ed Ray, who served as OSU president from 2003 through June 30, has left his post, and F. King Alexander is in the chair. In addition, interim College of Forestry Dean Anthony Davis, who took the brunt of the public outrage over the old-growth cut, was replaced in December by Thomas DeLuca.
“We feel that it is imperative that a logging moratorium be implemented immediately until a broad-cased group can be formed to determine the future of the forests with the development of guiding principles and a plan,” reads a letter Steve Cook and other activists sent to Alexander on Aug. 15.
“Industrial logging continues unabated on the forests," the letter emphasized.
In addition to the logging moratorium, the letter, which was signed by dozens of organizations and individuals, also noted eight other issues that the activists hope are addressed in OSU planning moving forward.
1. Who “owns” the OSU research forests?
2. What is “research” as it relates to these forests?
3. Water quality and quantity, especially as it relates to municipal drinking water.
4. Value of multigenerational forests vs. single-species, even-aged plantations.
5. What level of logging is appropriate in OSU research forests?
6. Recreation in the forests, its impacts and its value to the community.
7. Forest carbon sequestration and Gov. Brown’s directive on climate change.
8. Public resources including fish and wildlife habitat in the OSU research forests.
Similar sentiments were expressed in a letter to Alexander and DeLuca from seven Audubon Society chapters, including the Corvallis one.
“We disagree with the characterization that OSU’s research forests are managed as industrial forests,” said Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for university relations and marketing.
“The McDonald-Dunn is a sustainably managed forest that provides multiple benefits to the public and to the College of Forestry. Some stakeholders propose that the forests be managed for one value, such as carbon, ignoring other objectives and values that we manage for. Any harvested area is replanted to maintain future forests, following Oregon reforestation laws, and these forests continue to sequester carbon long into the future while providing habitat, aesthetics, designated areas open to the public, and a place to learn and conduct research.”
Clark added that “in 2020, a little over one-half of one percent of the McDonald-Dunn is scheduled to be clear-cut, approximately 78.7 acres out of a total forest of 11,250 acres.”
The issue of logging numbers has a bit of an eye of the beholder cast to it. According to figures released by Clark for recent years, the total cut in McDonald-Dunn has ranged from 4.25 million board feet projected for 2020 to 7.5 million board feet in 2015. The 2020 cut was reduced because of COVID, while the 2015 harvest was inflated by salvage logging of trees damaged in ice storms.
“The old guard at the College of Forestry tends to look at a tree and figure how many board feet are there,” said Cook, a former OSU sustainability instructor who lives within a stone’s throw of McDonald-Dunn.
Cook and Jim Fairchild from Corvallis Audubon took the Gazette-Times on a brief tour of the forest on Tuesday. Starting at the Oak Creek trailhead, we visited two recent cuts, one on the Homestead Trail and the other on Road 670.
“You can cut for volume or you can cut for research, and sometimes those things get confounded,” said Fairchild, whose office lies adjacent to the Oak Creek trailhead. Fairchild also manages 80 acres of forest near Marys Peak.
“We need to be talking carbon sequestration, not yield,” he added, noting his "allegiance is with Greta Thunberg," the Swedish teen climate activist who was named Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2019.
The carbon issue is one that has taken on new urgency in recent years amid harrowing climate change forecasts. It was less of a fixture in 2005, the last time OSU completed a management plan for McDonald-Dunn.
“Recent science from OSU adds to the body of literature indicating that intact forests provide greater sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon and contribute to improved ecosystem health, increased summer stream flows needed for aquatic and riparian wildlife, conservation of threatened and endangered organisms, and to improved water quality and recreational opportunity that also benefit human health,” reads the Audubon letter.
Clark said a new plan is coming.
“We expect a new OSU McDonald-Dunn forest management plan will be adopted in late 2022 or early 2023 and will be shaped by recommendations from a committee made up of College of Forestry and OSU experts and external stakeholders. The college is updating an inventory of the forest, which will be completed in early 2022 and involves taking measurements of thousands of plots throughout the McDonald-Dunn research forests, compiling the data, and making forecasts of forest growth.”
Clark said that the “public will have numerous opportunities to engage throughout the process.”
But with OSU showing no interest in a logging moratorium and activists fearing that the new plan will produce more cutting… well, it seems likely that the gap between the two sides will remain wide.
Adding to the frustration for Cook is that Alexander still has not responded to his Aug. 15 letter. Cook said that Ray usually answered letters or emails in a matter of days.
The 800-pound gorilla out there remains the Elliott State Forest, an 80,000-acre swath north of Coos Bay that is five times the size of OSU's 10 research forests combined. The university has been working with state land officials on a management plan, which is due sometime this fall.
Davis presented the outline of a plan last December that would set aside about 30,000 acres on the west side of the Elliott for conservation research, with the remaining 50,000 acres designated for research on different types of active forest management.
What this all will cost remains unknown, and activists fear that revenue demands might force OSU to be more aggressive with its cutting.
“We have real concerns about Elliott. If carbon sequestration is not in the plan, it will be hard to step back,” Fairchild said. “I think there are possibilities for Elliott to pay for itself beyond just cutting trees.”