New study shows forest thinning helps the spotted owl

2012-07-27 Ashley Bach

The spotted owl has caused untold economic suffering over the last 20 years, as the Northwest timber harvest was cut down to a fraction of its former self and rural communities across Washington, Oregon and California lost jobs and livelihoods. Now a new study by Oregon State University and Michigan State University is saying well, never mind all that.

According to the researchers, the real way to save the spotted owl isn't to stop all timber harvest - but to actively manage our forests with heavy thinning. Perhaps not to the harvest level of old but certainly a far cry from the mismanaged forests of today.

The biggest threat facing the owls is wildfire, the study says, and forest fires are raging across the West because they haven't been adequately thinned.

A “risk averse” strategy in fire-prone landscapes is not the best long-term alternative to conserve protected species, (researchers) said.

As years go by, forest conditions will continue to get even more crowded, insect and disease epidemics will increase, and forests will face stress from a warmer and often drier climate. Fire levels will increase and the problem will only get worse, said (John Bailey, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management at Oregon State University).

“Without active management to reduce risks, we never really put fire out, we just delay it,” he said. “We can keep kicking the can down the road, but sooner or later a stand-replacing fire will come that we can’t put out. Then the fires are enormous.”

This echoes what the forestry industry, forest owners and rural residents have been saying for years - our forests need active management and thinning, not to be ignored.

The Oregonian editorial board says the study should be a wakeup call for state and federal officials.

What's this mean now? Oregon needs to get going in its forests.

While no study by itself can be the ticket that opens forests up for heavy logging, the OSU findings suggest a middle-of-the-road sweet spot for logging levels that could serve several purposes: restore jobs in cash-strapped rural communities, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and create healthier forests that eventually support more species such as the spotted owl.

But not all forests are created equal when it comes to fire risk. Those east of the Cascades, situated in dry heat and more vulnerable to insect infestation and disease, become especially dangerous with the pileup of fuels. Yet several westside forests are considered dry, too, and they would be good candidates for stepped up harvests.

Will the study make any difference in state and federal forest policy? Only time will tell, but it's a promising sign.