Guest post by Mike Dubrasich

It may interest your readers to consider the forest losses due to the recent fires in Oregon.

I do not wish to minimize the human losses: 9 confirmed deaths, 5 missing, untold numbers of respiratory cases and other injuries, 1,400+ homes destroyed, and damage to homes, businesses, roads, powerlines, and other human-built assets. Those losses are staggering and will be mourned for years.

There are other losses to our forests, however, that may not have been fully reported so far. Nearly one million acres burned in Oregon’s west-side Cascade forests. These were some of the most productive (and well-stocked with mature timber) forests in the world. The Willamette National Forest is thought to have the most standing volume of any National Forest, with the Mt. Hood NF a close second. Over 700,000 acres burned in those two NF’s alone (including some adjacent private forests). Close to 175,000 acres burned on the Umpqua NF and BLM areas (including some adjacent private forests).

The average standing volume on those three NF’s is at least 50 mbf/acre, principally Douglas-fir (mbf = thousand board feet). Many of the areas burned were old-growth with volumes over 150 mbf/acre. I estimate that all told at least 50 bbf (billion board feet) were incinerated.

To put that into context, the total annual harvest for all ownerships combined, state-wide, over the last 20 years is about 4 bbf per year. The timber that burned in one week in September is equal (at a minimum) to 12 years of annual harvest in Oregon. To salvage just one percent of what burned (500 mmbf) would require five new large sawmills each running 100 mmbf for a year. After that the burned trees will be too rotten for salvage.

The value of a board foot is not easy to estimate: there are stumpage values, delivered log values, and lumber values. In addition there is a “multiplier effect” that includes sales (total output), value added, employment, wages and salaries, and indirect effects to other economic sectors. Economists have studied this concept and estimated the multiplier effect to be 1.5 to 3 times the lumber sales.

This year lumber prices have been hovering around $.60 per bf. With a conservative multiplier effect of 2, each bf represents a $1.20 contribution to the economy. That means the recent fires cost Oregon’s economy an estimated $60 billion.

That $60 billion loss does not include the growth potential of those burned acres. The west-side Cascade forests were growing about 1,000 bf/acre/year. Even if they reseed and initiate new stands, it will be 25 years before they reach that growth potential again. Thus the loss of growth is estimated to be 20 billion bf or an additional $24 billion opportunity cost to Oregon’s economy.

This combined $84 billion loss is my cursory “back of the envelope” calculation. It could be when other analysts do more rigorous studies, the timber value losses will be estimated to be well over $100 billion. For comparison, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $150 billion and was the costliest natural disaster in US history. The Oregon fires should be ranked second. The hue and cry over Katrina has not stopped. The media and political establishment have been silent regarding Oregon’s forest losses.

Besides the timber value losses, other forest resource losses were also significant. I estimate at least 150 pairs of Northern Spotted Owls were destroyed. That will bring the remaining population of NSO’s to less than 3,000. Some oldsters like myself may recall that there were an estimated 20,000 NSO’s in 1994 when the Clinton/Gore Northwest Forest Plan was implemented. Since then the population has declined by 85% or more. The NWFP has been an utter failure at protecting the species, with more than 5 million acres of owl habitat destroyed by fire over the last 26 years. It is worthy of note that the opportunity cost of the NWFP has been roughly 10 bbf per year, which is what the owl set-asides removed from harvest. Using the valuations above, that cost has been over $300 billion to Oregon’s economy. That’s an expensive failure. Oregonians have all paid that, for nothing in return.

Heritage old-growth stands were destroyed in Opal Creek, Olallie Lakes, Breitenbush, Blue River, the Clackamas Watershed, the North Umpqua Watershed, the North Santiam Watershed and in dozens of Wilderness Areas, Late Successional Reserves, and Roadless Areas. Non-management has not protected our heritage forests — quite the opposite. The value of those losses is incalculable. The environmentalists who sued and protested for decades to halt all management on Oregon’s federal forests are remarkably silent today.

Wildlife, water quality, fisheries, recreation, scenery, and other forest values have been lost as well. Those values are also difficult, if not impossible, to calculate.

I estimate greenhouse gas emissions were 80 metric tons per acre, or 80 million metric tons from all the fires. In context, the Oregon DEQ estimates total annual emissions from all human economic sectors combined is 60-70 million metric tons. Thus one week of fires emitted more greenhouse gases than all human activities state-wide for a year. Not all biomass was combusted, however. Over the next 25 years an additional 250 million metric tons will be released from decay of the killed but not consumed vegetation. Taking into account all Oregon forest fires over the last 25 years, as much as 55 million metric tons of greenhouse gases are emitted every year in Oregon from decay of fire-killed vegetation — nearly as much as total state-wide human emissions.

The Oregon Legislature and Governor have set carbon emission targets at 45% of 1990 levels by 2025 and 80% by 2050. The 1990 level was 55 million metric tons. Thus these levels cannot be achieved even if all human production of CO2 was halted: no transportation, no electricity generation, no home or business heating, cooling or light. Oregon could be completely depopulated and shut down for 25 years, and the emissions goals would still be vastly exceeded from burned forests decaying.

There are three main causal factors for these losses: 1. Ignition source (lightning in two of the fires, human in the others); 2. Weather (east winds); and 3. Extreme fuels loads and fuel continuity due to 30+ years of no management. Much more could be said or written about the causes.

No amount of blame laying will restore what has been lost, however. We need to understand the depth of the damage to Oregon forests in order to properly grieve. The shock must not linger; we must accept what has happened and feel fully the sorrow of this enormous tragedy. We must remember and mourn our treasures, so essential to Oregon’s identity, that have been destroyed. Only then may we move forward to prevent the recurrence of similar catastrophes.

Mike Dubrasich
Professional Forester
Lebanon, Oregon
Oct. 17, 2020

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October 19, 2020 at 12:22PM