CORVALLIS, Ore. - Forestry students and researchers at Oregon State University have developed a management proposal for some public forest lands in the central Oregon Coast Range that they believe could help break a political gridlock, serve some important ecological goals and produce significantly more funds for Oregon counties than existing approaches.

The proposal, which the students have already presented to the staffs of several Oregon political leaders, is premised on the need for more "early successional" ecosystems - the diverse young forests that are increasingly scarce but are needed for many species of wildlife. And it incorporates a concept that in modern forestry might be considered heresy: natural regeneration of forests, rather than manual replanting.

It would be controversial, it certainly is unusual, and it challenges some basic concepts of modern forest management, said K. Norman Johnson, an OSU distinguished professor of forest ecosystems and society, and one of the original authors of the Northwest Forest Plan adopted during the Clinton administration.

"This may also be the last, best hope for long-term productive management of these lands," Johnson said.

The land in question would be a trial experiment on 70,000 acres of "Oregon and California Railroad," or O&C lands, managed in Benton and northern Lane County by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. These lands were originally designated to be managed for timber production, with a portion of the income to be shared with Oregon counties. But the multiple conflicts, development of the Northwest Forest Plan, court fights and disputes in recent years on O&C lands have resulted in a management strategy that entails only plantation thinning, not harvest of mature trees.

"Studies show that the thinning being done on these lands will decline in coming decades until it essentially disappears, and counties will receive virtually no income from them," Johnson said. "That was never the intent of either the O&C mandate or the Northwest Forest Plan, but that is what's happening."

At the same time, another thing that's also being lost is what scientists call "early successional" lands, or young, comparatively unmanaged forests that form the type of habitat needed by bluebirds, purple martins, other birds, butterflies and various species. Public land of that type, Johnson said, is actually scarcer now than old-growth forests.

So the challenge - given to forest management and recreation management students at OSU as an undergraduate "capstone" project - was how to create a management plan that would provide a useful ecological function, produce a sustainable and predictable level of income for counties, and avoid what studies have shown are the two most socially unacceptable aspects of forest management - clear-cutting and harvest of old-growth trees.

With some unconventional approaches, the new plan does all of that.

The conceptual foundation of the proposal comes largely from a report created last year by Johnson and Jerry Franklin, an ecologist from the University of Washington, titled "Restoration of Federal Forests in the Pacific Northwest: Strategies and Management Implications." The important contribution of the students was to apply and adapt these restoration approaches to a real forest.

To start with, 25 percent of all trees would be left in the forest at all times, they would never be clear-cut. No trees considered "old-growth," at more than 150 years of age, would be harvested. Multiple tree and shrub species would be allowed, in part by using natural regeneration instead of replanting with a monoculture of Douglas-fir. This, in turn, would provide the early successional forest structure needed by some wildlife. And timber harvests would go beyond just thinning to include some mature and more valuable trees that would be managed to provide a steady, perpetual, and predictable income from the property.

"This approach is not without drawbacks," Johnson said. "At best, it would produce about 20 percent of the timber revenue that these lands did historically. But that would be sustainable, and has to be compared to producing very little revenue in the near future, with existing approaches. And the use of natural regeneration clearly challenges some accepted forest management techniques."

Although now considered antiquated, this system is actually similar to one used many decades ago when most, but not all trees were harvested, and the land regenerated naturally, Johnson said.

Also worth factoring into the equation, experts say, is the value these lands have for other purposes, for which Oregon counties are not being compensated. Student research indicates the acres in question have sequestered tens of millions of dollars of carbon, even at current low prices, and also provide millions of dollars a year in recreational value - fishing, hunting, camping, wildlife viewing - that people would be willing to pay for, but don't have to.

"These O&C lands are serving major public services for which the counties get nothing," Johnson said. "That's at least part of the justification for providing the counties with a permanent federal allocation in addition to revenue from timber harvest."

Variations of this approach might be applied to other federal lands, Johnson said, in the interests of breaking political gridlock and finding management approaches that address a broad range of public, environmental, and economic concerns.

"Part of the problem with the original Northwest Forest Plan was that it did not adequately address social concerns, and the full range of species protection, as well as public and economic issues," Johnson said. "We believe this new approach might work because it has a secret weapon - no clear-cutting, no old-growth harvests, and the potential support of ecologists. We hope it will be considered carefully."

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K. Norman Johnson, 541-737-2377