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Guest Opinion: Forest resiliency in a changing climate

Here in Southern Oregon, we live in a hot spot of evergreen tree diversity. Our forests are arguably the most diverse evergreen forests in the world, comprising 35 species of conifers alone. These forests are resilient in the face of natural weather patterns. They have evolved with long summers of fire and sometimes little to no precipitation, thriving off of winter precipitation and lasting snowpack.

But these conditions are rapidly changing, and our forest management practices must keep up if we want to continue benefiting from forests in the form of timber, recreation and a clean water drinking supply.

As we experience the local effects of global climate change and years of drought, our resilient forests are starting to feel the heat and are getting thirsty. It is disheartening that although 2016 brought ample snow and precipitation to the region, our public forest managers are reporting continued conifer tree mortality throughout the region.

There are many viewpoints for best forest management practices, yet it is certain that increased logging and clearcutting is not the answer. Heavily logged forests are creating a landscape of smaller-diameter trees that are hotter and drier than older forests that have existed in the past. This makes our forests more susceptible to invasive and non-native species, further degrading the diversity and resiliency.

As the BLM works on the Management Plan for the 2.5 million acres of Western Oregon forests, it is imperative that climate change and tree mortality is considered as a primary lens for forest management. Counties throughout the Western Oregon region are advocating for 500 million board feet of timber to be proposed for extraction. This is an unsustainable value, and is almost twice what the BLM proposal outlines.

If the proposed BLM management plan moves forward, scientists estimate over 300,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide will be emitted per year, moving us further down a road of climate change that we don’t want to travel. This will affect our access to fresh water, clean air and outdoor recreation.

As a current master's student in the Environmental Education and Biology program at SOU, I am studying the effects of human-induced climate change on Brewer spruce, a tree found nowhere else in the world but here. This ancient tree species has survived by gaining access to high alpine ridgelines that historically have abundant winter snowpack and moderate summer temperatures.

Findings indicate the Brewer spruce is at high risk from climate change; thin bark makes it susceptible to forest fire, and with extensive drought, it is being outcompeted by other species in its ability to establish new populations. This is further evidence that climate change is affecting the resiliency of our forests, and threatening the diversity of cone-bearing evergreen trees we find in our region.

We can, and should, all understand what the proposed management plan means to the forests, waterways and air quality in our region. In order to keep our forests and our region healthy, we need to consider the impacts of forest management on our climate, instead of advocating for an arbitrary amount of board feet of timber. Our resilient forests are in jeopardy from drought, wildfires, beetle infestations and over-harvesting.

There are common-sense solutions. Sustainable thinning of small trees, smart product innovation and consumer awareness can alleviate some of the demand for lumber and paper products that for so long has put our prized forests on the chopping block.

Shannon Browne is a graduate student at Southern Oregon University. She is a Pacific Northwest native and a longtime forest advocate. This summer she is working with KS Wild through the Kathryn Macdiarmid Conservation Steward Fellowship.