Presentation to the Oregon Board of Forestry
April 6, 2022
We meet today in the afterglow of a great achievement in collaboration: The Private Forest Accord, approved by the legislature last month. This collective achievement provides the foundation for a different and more productive approach to resolving conflict across Oregon’s forested landscape. Today, I want to challenge you to go even further.
The Board of Forestry sits at the intersection of one of our state’s greatest natural resources, our forests—and one of the state’s greatest needs, housing. Today, I want to challenge you to imagine that forest policy can be the fulcrum that brings all this together in a way that not only solves for multiple social, economic and environmental values, but also helps restore our sense of shared identify as Oregonians. I want to say this again. Forest policy can be the fulcrum that brings all this together in a way that solves for multiple social, economic and environmental values, AND can help restore our sense of shared identify as Oregonians
My career in public service has been based on one central belief—the belief that a hopeful, inclusive and prosperous future is the product of a common purpose, of something larger than ourselves that all of us are willing to work on together. I am challenging you to look at forest policy through that lens. This is a big idea, but one I believe is consistent with the mission of this board: “To lead Oregon in implementing policies and programs that promote sustainable management of Oregon’s public and private forests.”
My central thesis is that our ability to fulfill this mission is constrained by a fragmented landscape— by a patchwork of ownership patterns, political jurisdictions, business models and management practices. This limits our policy solutions to those that can fit into this irrational and artificially constructed landscape. The question we need to be asking today is how we would achieve our mission if we could manage across the entire landscape, rather than on just pieces of it.
So, even as you work to update the Forestry Program for Oregon, I believe that this board and the executive branch must offer a larger vision for how we will manage our forests over the next few decades—a vision that is not constrained by current statutes and regulations, or by existing ownership and political boundaries. We need the courage and the capacity to look beyond the way the world is—because frankly, the way the world is … is the problem. It’s simply not working.
Some of you are old enough to remember President Kennedy’s 1962 speech challenging the nation to go to the moon:
“We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away, a giant rocket, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun– and do all this, and do it right, and do it before this decade is out.”
Kennedy did not give us a roadmap, only a destination. But in doing so he changed the debate from where we wanted to go to how we were going to get there—and unleashed the innovation and passion of the nation in common cause. And we did it, we did it because we imagined it— because the storypreceded the accomplishment. Today I am asking you to imagine and write that story for the future of forest policy in Oregon.
To set the stage, let me share a few experiences that helped forged my perspective on this issue. When I moved to Roseburg in 1974, to set up my practice as an emergency physician, the town was booming. Giant trees were being taken off the Umpqua National Forest, logs so big that a truck could only carry one at a time. In the 1970s, more than 8 billion board feet was harvested each year in Oregon and the wood products industry directly employed 80,000 people at wages 30% above the statewide average.
I knew these people and their families. I sewed them up in the ER and set their broken bones. I delivered their children, I fished with them, drank beer with them and I admired their work ethic and their commitment to their families. They were proud, hardworking people in a proud, close-knit community—a community that was supported almost entirely by timber.
Yet, I found myself conflicted because I knew the level of timber harvest in the late 1970s was unsustainable and was damaging the ecosystem in a place I loved. I moved to Roseburg for one reason: The North Umpqua River and the million-acre Umpqua National Forest that surrounds it. I found—and still find— both peace and awe in the towering Douglas firs and in the emerald river. In the long summer evenings, I would fish the golden light off the green water and then camp in the woods above Steamboat Creek surrounded by the smell of fir trees and the sound of the river.
In 1981, the housing market collapsed and along with it the demand for lumber. Unemployment in Douglas County reached nineteen percent. When the recession came to Roseburg, Alice came to the ER—a woman in her late thirties, with a ragged cut on her left cheek surrounded by a darkening bruise It wasn’t a serious laceration but it looked to me like she had been hit by something … or someone.
As it turned out, it was her husband of fifteen years. He had been laid off from his job at the Sun Studs sawmill, where his father had worked before him. After several months he began to drink, he became sullen and depressed. And then abusive. Over the next few months I began to see more of this kind of thing, often people I knew— substance abuse, domestic violence, the disintegration of families. This was the human and social consequence when proud hard-working people, through no fault of their own, were suddenly unable to put bread on the table or pay the mortgage. A loss of pride, a loss of independence, the loss of a sense of purpose. These were the faces of despair and hopelessness. It is an experience I never forgot.
I share this with you because, although I spent much of my adult life fighting to protect and enhance salmon and steelhead runs from the Umpqua to the Columbia, there is a human side to this story—one that cannot be ignored if we are to realize the sustainable management called for in your mission. Over the past 40 years this conflict – usually framed as a zero-sum choice between ecologic and economic values — has become almost a metaphor for the urban-rural divide which, in turn, contributes significantly to the environment of polarization and divisiveness that is shredding the fabric of our community.
I have come to believe that we cannot solve for environmental, economic and community values in a forest policy that is isolated and stands apart from the challenges that are confronting all of us in the non-forested parts of Oregon. We need to include in the constituency for forest policy, those who may not see themselves as affected by how Oregon’s forests are managed. We need to find solutions that can reknit the fabric of our society and bring Oregonians together in common cause by simultaneously addressing issues that are both directly and indirectly impacted by forest policy.
Last year, at the request of Sustainable Northwest, I wrote a white paper called: The Future of Forest Policy in Oregon. Its conclusion was that because of the fragmentation of our forested landscape our current management framework does not correlate very well with species needs, with forest health, or with economic, social and local community values. And, importantly it does not fully recognize or reflect the additional risks posed by climate change and mega wildfires.
The problem is that things like climate, habitat, sustainable harvest and water supply, don’t recognize these artificial boundaries. Wildfire that starts on public land burns private trees, and vice versa. Smoke impacts the entire state. It doesn’t matter to a salmon who owns the land it is swimming through. All that matters is the health of the aquatic environment. Yet the impact on water quality at one point on a stream impacts water quality downstream regardless of ownership.
Operating within the constraints of the current structure produces outcomes that often do not make sense. For example, only 14% of our annual harvest comes from the 60% of the land base owned and managed by the federal government. This has increased pressure for harvest on both state and private lands, with most of it coming from the 22% of the land managed for industrial forestry. The Private Forest Accord was an effort to address the environmental impact of this outcome, at least for aquatic species.
And the Accord is a remarkable accomplished. Credit must be given to the executive branch, to Steve Zika, Bob Van Dyk, and to everyone else involved. At the same time, the Accord, while a huge step forward, is fairly narrow in scope, focusing primarily on aquatic species and habitat. It won’t be long until we hear voices from the conservation community saying that it is “not enough.” And they will have a point because a host of issues remain unaddressed, including terrestrial species, protecting drinking water, pesticides, sediment, climate resilience, carbon storage, and general forest health.
Furthermore, while successful, the agreement was not the result of a spontaneous mutual desire by both sides to collaborate. It was born from a traditional “conflict model” of dueling ballot measures, which provided the motivation to negotiate. It is hard to imagine the appetite or the capacity within a divided forest products industry to engage in another sequential series of lengthy processes to address these issue—especially before the Forest Accord is fully implemented and the HCP is in place.
And yet we need to move forward aggressively—and soon—on a number of fronts if we are to reverse or at least mitigate a set of deeply troubling trends that are rapidly overtaking us. These include climate change, wildfire risk, the erosion of economic security in rural Oregon, and the growing polarization and loss of civility in our public debate which makes it increasingly difficult for us to act together as a community to address any of these challenges.
Accepting the notion that we must negotiate and/or litigate each individual area of conflict one at a time constrains our imagination and radically narrows the solution space. The question, then, is how can we accelerate the process of developing a sustainable and more holistic forest policy? And, of equal importance, what is our strategy to we move beyond the current fragmented approach to policy-making to one that recognizes that most of our social, economic and ecologic issues are interrelated, and cannot be addressed in isolation from one another?
The answer is to make the solution space much larger by: (1) viewing Oregon’s forested land as a whole and imagining how to design and harmonize management practices to achieve common outcomes across the entire landscape, rather than on just fragments of it, and (2) framing the current debate in a larger context that includes other policy goals and constituenciesthat are connected to our issue, but may not, on the surface, appear to have anything to do with how we manage our forests.
By bringing together multiple issues—including forest policy—in a way that creates community, we can rebuild the social adhesiveness needed to move confidently into an uncertain future. This will require a willingness to imagine, a willingness to look beyond the current lens that narrowly focuses the politics of forest policy only on conservation and environmental interests and those of the forest products industry and the communities that depend on it.
The central tool needed to reframe the conversation in this way is a single interactive, data-based map of Oregon’s forested landscape. Now, envision this map overlaid with ownership patterns, business models and management protocols, political jurisdictions, watersheds, sensitive habitat needs (both aquatic and terrestrial), critical water supplies, areas of high wildfire risk, the location of communities, poverty patterns and other social demographic information, including areas of high housing insecurity, a shortage of workforce housing and the availability of buildable land.
Armed with this new tool, we would next ask three things. First, we would ask, “If anything were possible, how would we manage across the entire forested landscape in a way that best meets and balances ecologic, economic and community needs?” Second, we would ask, “How can we ensure that our management framework maximizes climate resilience and minimizes wildfire risk?” Finally, we would ask, “How can we engage other related policy goals and constituencies in both urban and rural Oregon who currently view themselves as outside the context of forest policy?”
Let me offer an example. Suppose that tomorrow Oregon decides to get serious about the housing crisis that is impacting every part of our state. Over the next 20 years, Oregon faces a shortage of 583,000 housing units only 5% of which are needed to house those who are currently houseless—the other 95% reflects historic underproduction and projected need.
This shortage has profoundly disrupted the supply and demand equation, driving housing prices up 19.7% over the past year. This has forced more people to rent which, in turn, has created a shortage of rental units and driven up rental rates. This problem cannot be solved by focusing only low-income housing, as important as that is. The solution requires rebalancing supply with demand by dramatically increasing our housing inventory across the board, including market-rate housing.
Suppose Oregon says, “We’re going to make this a top priority by committing to build — pick a number— let’s say 10,000 units each year for 20 years. These units will be built using Oregon restoration fiber from the forest health treatments necessary to reduce wildfire risk and to improve landscape resiliency—and from Oregon forests that are managed to certain standards of sustainability. Furthermore, these units will be constructed from mass timber produced in Oregon and many of the units will be built by Oregon-based modular housing companies.
This two-decade public financing commitment would serve the same purpose as a long-term forest stewardship agreement, or a long-term timber supply contract. It would provide the fiscal certainty for private sector businesses to invest in expanding mill capacity in certain areas of the state, expanding mass timber production facilities, expanding modular housing infrastructure, and expanding workforce training in the forest products industry and building trades. These resources could also serve as a lever to ensure we are diversifying the workforce and paying living wages.
Let’s assume that these 10,000 housing units are mass plywood panel homes of around 1,000 square feet each. That would require 90 million board feet of wood each year. We also know that Oregon has 5.6 million acres of landscape at high risk for wildfire, and that restoring and maintaining the resiliency of this land will require active management, including thinning, prescribed burns and fuel removal.
Restoration harvests yield 5 – 20 million board per 1000 acres, depending on stand location and condition. So, by treating between at 4,500-18,000 acres of high wildfire risk forestland per year, we can produce enough wood for our 10,000 housing units. We have now linked together four policy goals: reducing wildfire risk, increasing landscape resilience, sustainable timber harvest and addressing the housing shortage.
Now, with our new mapping tool, we can look across the entire forested landscape to develop policy options to secure the necessary fiber in a way that best meets ecologic, economic and community needs, while maximizing climate resilience and minimizing wildfire risk. The tool can help us identify, among other things:
- Where the source of timber should come from
- How we ensure this is balanced across the landscape with other critical values, including terrestrial and aquatic habitat, clean water, carbon storage and overall forest health.
- Where the housing need is most acute
- Where to site or expand mill capacity, mass timber and modular housing infrastructure, with an eye to rural community economic stability
This landscape-level approach would allow us to reduce wildfire risk and increase carbon storage and general forest health. It could also allow a more rational and effective way to address habitat, biodiversity and drinking water across the landscape and provide more stability for the forest products industry and for rural communities. Finally, an importantly, it would put forest policy at the center of a multi-faceted strategy that engages multiple stakeholders in common cause. And there is yet one more piece.
Consider that when people start paying more than a 30% of their income for housing, the rate of homelessness increases exponentially. Over a third of Oregonians find themselves in this situation today, with hundreds of thousands more on the cusp. This has dramatically increased the number of Oregonians who face chronic housing insecurity which is a major contributing factor to family stress and instability.
Family instability, in turn, leads to a well-documented set of “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) which include neglect, a parent with a substance use disorder, domestic violence and divorce. This is exactly what I was seeing the ER in Roseburg 40 years ago. This kind of toxic stress on children leads to poor physical, mental and behavioral outcomes later in life and triggers a generational cycle of poverty and despair.
By addressing housing supply and housing insecurity—using Oregon restoration fiber and sustainable timber—we expand not only the solution space for a more holistic forest policy, but also engage new partners from the social and education sectors who now become invested in sustainable forest management. We are now solving not only for forest values—biodiversity, habitat, harvest and clean water— but also for homelessness and housing insecurity, for family instability and reducing the generational impact of adverse childhood experiences. We are solving for a more diverse and better paid workforce, and for better educational outcomes and healthier Oregonians.
This is a big idea, but it is not impossible. We can do it. If we can imagine it, we can do it. Remember: the story must precede the accomplishment. This is not a challenge of technology—it’s a challenge of leadership, of will and compassion, and of the depth of our commitment to one another as Oregonians and as fellow human being. And it’s not nearly as difficult as going to the moon.
Perhaps more than at any other time, Oregon needs something hopeful to reach for. Oregon needs something that can transcend the hyper-partisanship and polarization that is tearing us apart, and undermining our ability to act together as a community to secure a shared future.
The story I am asking you to imagine and to begin to write today can provide that renewed sense of shared identity and common purpose, a new and hopeful story about Oregon and Oregonians. This is a story in which all of us can see ourselves—a story rooted in the land and the forests that help define us, but embracing people from every walk of life and in every corner of our state.
Let this be Oregon’s future.