July, 2001





Look at CTL 

By Eini Lowell (Guest Columnist)

The forest fires of 2000 brought the conditions of the West's forests to the front page of newspapers and captured the attention of many in Washington, D.C. Two years ago, former Chief of the Forest Service Michael Dombeck estimated over 40 million acres of National Forest land were at high risk of fire, disease, and insect outbreak because of increased stand density. The number of acres continues to be revised upward as additional data become available. Whatever the reason; be it suppression of natural ground fires over the last 60 to 80 years, effects of livestock grazing, harvesting and regeneration practices, or decreasing harvests, the character of the western landscape has changed. There are too many small diameter trees! Historically, small-diameter trees (generally trees less than 10 inches breast-height diameter) have been considered non-merchantable and treated as slash or waste. 

Eini C. Lowell, research forest products technologist with the PNW (Pacific Northwest) Research station, is currently identifying opportunities with ecosystem management focusing on small-diameter trees.

Leaving this material in the woods is often not desirable because it can substantially increase fuel loading. Costs associated with removal of this excess biomass are very expensive. The need to decrease stand density to reduce fire hazard and improve forest health is widely recognized and in 2001 led to a congressional appropriation of $1.1 billion to fund projects to reduce fire risk under the National Fire Plan (NFP). Two of the longer-term goals of the NFP include increasing the use of cost-share activities to promote utilization of small diameter trees for forest products and promoting applied research and technology transfer that focuses on seeking new uses and markets for byproducts of restoration. 

Limited dollars could be extended if we use the trees removed to offset costs associated with fuel reduction treatments. Often, these small trees are thought to be young growth with all the characteristics typical of young trees; a high proportion of juvenile wood, wide growth rings, and large branches. So why bother? Research by the Ecologically Sustainable Forest Resources team at the PNW Research Station and the Forest Products Laboratory has shown that many of the trees coming from densely stocked stands have wood quality characteristics similar to old growth; small knots and slower growth. These characteristics allow for manufacturing some value-added products such as machine-stress rated lumber, glulam beams, and clear cuttings. 

Many communities in the wild land residential interface, impacted by forest health issues, have a natural resource based economy. People there often wish to maintain the economic health of their community by developing opportunities for their natural resources. While traditional sawmills cannot run on a steady diet of small diameter trees, technologies exist (such as portable sawmills or post and pole operations) that are designed to process small logs and that are within reach of these communities. These technologies require smaller raw material volumes than traditional sawmills. Out of necessity, small mill operators are looking for ways to integrate their operations to include a variety of products. Often, they work with other local industries such as conventional sawmills that process larger logs to more effectively use by-products of restoration. 

This fits well with another long-term goal of the NFP, to create new jobs by encouraging new stewardship industries and collaboration with local people, volunteers, and others. The raw material supply from the National Forests is tight at the moment and establishing a new business based on this resource is risky. However, continuing to answer questions and develop new tools will leave us positioned to use byproducts of forest restoration treatments when the supply does become available. Biological diversity and timber production are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Desired future conditions of our forests need to be determined in collaboration with communities, interest groups, state and federal agencies, and tribal governments. It has taken years for our forests to reach their current condition and it will take years to determine the effectiveness of restoration treatments. 

Along the way we should consider restoration of ecological processes as we reduce hazardous fuels conditions. Research being conducted by the ESP team on stand and landscape simulations helps provide a picture of what stands may look like in the future and how landscape level processes might play out. Simulation techniques are also helpful in identifying highest priority areas for treatment to reduce hazardous fuels. We cannot lose sight of the fact that this is temporary in the larger picture. Ecosystems are dynamic by definition. Research being conducted by the ESP team suggests that when conservation of biological diversity is the primary objective of a land management activity, the opportunity exists to grow high quality trees available for harvest in the future. 

The focus on federal land is shifting toward restoration and away from whether or not treatments pay for themselves. Even so, wouldn't it be great if the picture included a land management plan that addresses multiple resource needs from our forests and also help to meet the demand for wood products through local channels

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