Albion Monitor /Commentary

Oregon's Forest Health Crisis

by Russell Sadler

Today Oregon's Ponderosa pines are gone, replaced by dense stands of fir trees with armies of moths, pine beetles, spruce bud worms and other pests
(AR) ASHLAND -- Congressman Bob Smith plans to bring a clutch of Eastern Congressman to the Blue Mountains this month to show them the "forest health" problem. There is not much question about what they will see -- acres of dead trees. The question is what the congressmen will be asked to do about it. There is a dirty little secret about the "forest health" problem in the Inland West. It is the result of 100 years of orthodox industrial forest management.

The earliest white settlers found a vast, open, park-like landscape full of yellow-bellied Ponderosa pine five feet across. Today after nearly 100 years of trying to manage this unfamiliar semi-arid, fire-adapted landscape, the Ponderosa pines are gone, replaced by dense stands of fir trees. It is a virtual buffet for armies of Tussock moths, pine beetles, spruce bud worms and other pests. By 1991 insects invaded half the stands on the 5.5 million acres in the Blues. Nearly 70 percent of the trees were infested in some stands.

The Forest Service and the timber industry colluded to cut the trees as fast as they could and devastated the forest
That is the "forest health" problem Eastern congressmen will see. Many of Rep. Smith's constituents fear catastrophic fire will sweep these mountains. Smith wants the trees cut before they burn. Forest ecologists insist such an event would not be a disaster and might even be a better solution than more intensive human attempts to "fix" the forest. Widespread fire in the Blue Mountains would create ideal conditions for a new forest of larch and Ponderosa stands mixed with stands of older mixed-conifers in areas where the fires had not been so intense.

What is threatened by insect epidemics and catastrophic fire, of course, is the chance to extract certain resources. That is why the Blue Mountain "forest health crisis" is more political than ecological.

These are not my opinions. They are the opinions of Nancy Langston, an ecologist who teaches environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She documents the history of the mismanagement of the Blue Mountains in her superb book Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares. Langston is no ivory tower scholar. She spent several recent summers in the Northwest, including time at the Pacific Northwest Research Station's Forestry and Range Sciences Lab in LaGrande interviewing and staying with the region's ranchers, loggers and environmentalists.

Most environmentalists insist the deteriorated condition of the forests in the Blue Mountains is the result of simple greed. The Forest Service and the timber industry colluded to cut the trees as fast as they could and devastated the forest.

Utilitarians argue the Forest Service gave in to sentimental preservationists. They argue intensive management -- cutting the dead and dying trees, burning what is left and replanting "healthy" trees -- is necessary to protect the forest from its natural enemies of fire, insects and disease. Langston argues neither version is the whole truth.

"Across the Inland West," Langston writes, "the troubled history of land management has its roots not in ignorance but in American visions of the proper human relationship to nature." That relationship changes over time.

Geographers tell us that resource values are culturally defined. The earliest settlers burned whole forests because trees were an impediment to agriculture. There was no market yet for wood products beyond their own cabins and outbuildings. The management choices that devastated the Blue Mountains were the result of human attempts to "manage, perfect and simplify" forests in conformity with the prevailing ideology of the day. Foresters who practiced the art at the turn of this century were trained to transform "the general riot of nature" -- old growth forests -- into regulated, productive, sustained-yield forests. They did not want to merely admire nature. They wanted to put it to good use.

Today ecologists know forest functions are more complicated than that. The metaphors created by the words "productive, simplify, improve, perfect, regulate" led to millions of acres of dying trees. How could insect-resistant forests become susceptible forests without anyone noticing? Langston says early foresters in the Forest Service or anywhere else did not understand plant succession or fire ecology.

Unrepentant industrial foresters will argue more intensive human intervention is necessary
Early foresters ridiculed the Native American practice of setting light fires that burned the small pine and fir seedlings in the understory without burning the Ponderosa pine. Foresters dismissed this practice derisively as "Paiute forestry" as if ignorant savages could not possible know as much as educated scientists. One hundred years of scientific management, including more than 50 years of ruthless fire suppression, suggest the Native Americans understood something about the semi-arid, fire-adapted land they inhabited that early foresters did not.

Rep. Smith's Eastern colleagues will likely hear two arguments on their tour. Unrepentant industrial foresters will argue more intensive human intervention is necessary. Ponderosa is shade intolerant. Aggressive clearcutting and even-aged logging over wide areas is the only way to restore "forest health."

Ecologists will argue the problem is too much management. Decades of excessive cutting, soil compaction and selective logging that took the Ponderosa pines and left the fir coupled with even-aged management created a simplified ecosystem susceptible to epidemics.

The industrial foresters prescription is certainly the only way to restore logging soon, but the forest will eventually restore itself even if it must burn away the residue of 100 years of human intervention. What choice should the congressmen make?

Langston argues the choice will depends on the perspective of the people involved. Someone who sees the "natural" old growth and diseased forest as a place of waste and decay tends to believe human intervention is necessary to prevent waste and create a clean, productive growing stand. Someone who understands how ecosystems function will see value in the way insects and disease have their own way of restoring the forest. They are more likely to value old growth stands rather than single species, even-aged stands. The value of resources is culturally defined.

The question is whether Bob Smith persuades his Eastern colleagues to adopt the Western utilitarian view of natural resource management that has prevailed for 100 years.

If Smith's Eastern colleagues gaze out over those valleys of dead and dying trees and realize they are actually looking at the results of those 100-year-old utilitarian values put into practice, they may decide to find some alternative. The forests would fare better if the congressmen invited Nancy Langston along as one of their guides.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 10, 1997 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page