Society of American Foresters

Northwest Regions

Changes in Forestry in the Pacific Northwest Offer Hope for the Future

By Derek Churchill

Derek Churchill author photograph

As we move into 2021, we are all hoping for better times ahead. During this divisive and difficult time, I have been reflecting on how the experience of the forestry sector moving through a similarly divisive time might have some lessons and hope to offer.

I began my forestry career in the 1990s when forestry in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) went through a major paradigm shift. The focus on wood production that shaped forestry since its beginnings transitioned to an ecosystem perspective with a broader set of ecological and social objectives. This process involved bitter division, passionate protests, lengthy legal battles, huge swings in policy, and loss of trust in forestry by a large portion of the public. Rural communities endured significant economic upheaval and social disruption.

Since this difficult time, however, I have seen things get better overall. Yes, there is still a lot of division and the timber wars are still simmering; forest health problems are immense; and many rural areas have not recovered. But these problems are outweighed by advances and positive changes in our scientific understanding, silvicultural approaches, forestry education, technology, trust among collaborative partners, and social acceptance of the need for active management. On public land, I have been part of a gradual movement toward a more socially sustainable middle ground in forest policy. The progress we have made in the past 25 years provides some key lessons that can help us navigate the social and environmental challenges we face today.

Advances in science and education The scientific knowledge that underpins forest management has advanced significantly in the past three decades. We are fortunate to have robust research institutions in the PNW that have led the way. Our understanding of how forests develop structurally over time, the role of fire and other disturbances, the drivers of biodiversity, connections between forests and aquatic systems, to name only a few, has greatly expanded. New areas of inquiry have emerged, such as landscape ecology and management, social dimensions, carbon sequestration and storage, fuels reduction and wildfire risk management, biofuels, the historical role of Indigenous peoples in shaping forests, and climate adaptation, among many others. Advances in silviculture and forest engineering have improved productivity and reduced the impacts of roads and harvesting. Although this expansion of knowledge can be hard to keep up with, it has improved our ability to address the emerging forest management challenges associated with rapid social and climatic change.

Reflecting these changes, forestry colleges at our major universities in the PNW have expanded to include a wider set of natural resource disciplines or been merged with other schools, often changing their names. Undergraduate forestry education has profoundly shifted in this process. What was once primarily technical training in forest management and engineering skills is now closer to a liberal arts, interdisciplinary education that covers a larger set of ecological and social subjects.

North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative
Field trips to restoration sites allow collaboratives such as the
North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative to build
trust among stakeholders and provide opportunities for dialogue.
Photo courtesy of Chuck Hersey

These changes have involved tradeoffs.While the increased breadth of natural resource departments has expanded options for students, many programs lack the clear identity and purpose they once had. Traditional silviculture and forest engineering course offerings have been reduced, and many of today’s students graduate with fewer field and technical skills. For example, in 2003 I attended the last Pack Forest field quarter—an instrumental part of the educational experience at the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington for 80 years. The school ended this longstanding tradition that was the high point of many students’ experience and connected graduates across generations. On the plus side, today’s graduates are better equipped to think critically, communicate and engage with diverse interest groups, embrace new technologies, address complex natural resource problems, and adapt as the world continues to change.

New technologies and tools

Accelerating technological changes have affected all sectors of forestry. Widespread adoption of GIS, Lidar, imagery, and GPS technology has exponentially expanded the quantity and accuracy of information available to forest managers. At the most basic level, navigating through the woods is now a different experience. Instead of pacing while following a compass bearing, and squinting at maps and aerial photos, foresters can now track their location as a blue dot on a digital map on their smartphone. The ability to easily access GIS information and collect data on a tablet or phone is transforming how we experience, understand, monitor, and ultimately manage forests. Any member of the public can now look beyond locked gates and zoom into every acre of every ownership in Google Maps. The availability of large-scale datasets, coupled with increased computing power, has also changed forest science. A graduate student can now run complex models or analyses involving thousands of acres and gigabytes of data on their laptop. Advances in harvesting and milling technology have greatly increased the efficiency and safety of forest operations while reducing the need for labor. These technological changes have increased the efficiency and effectiveness of forest management, but they have also created new challenges, such as information overload, greater public expectations of forest managers, and reduced employment opportunities.

New management approaches

Changes in social values, scientific understanding, forestry education, and technology have facilitated many changes in how forests in the PNW are now managed. As I have dealt primarily with federal land and small public landowners in my career, I will focus on these ownerships. Changes in the private industrial sector, state trustlands, and small private landowners are beyond what I can cover here and the scope of my expertise. After the Northwest Forest Plan, the salvage rider, and the many other conflicts that engulfed federal land management in the 1990s, a major shift toward restoration-based management on federal land took hold in the early 2000s. Stakeholders who had fought bitterly for many decades began engaging in collaborative processes to find common ground around management that offered ecological and economic benefits. In the wetter forests on the west side of the Cascades, variable density thinning to accelerate the development of old forest structure in plantations and some mature forests offered a win-win approach that all partners could agree upon. In our dry forests east of the Cascade crest, fuel reduction, dry forest restoration treatments, and prescribed fire are the win-win approach that address forest health and wildfire risk problems while also keeping mills alive. Although some foresters were initially skeptical of these ecological forestry approaches, they are now largely accepted and actively being improved by innovative foresters.

Effective collaboration

Over the past 20 years, forest collaboration on national forests has become a critical component of building trust among stakeholders, reducing conflict and lawsuits, and increasing social support for forest management. Forest collaboratives have emerged across the region and are mostly embraced by the Forest Service. Friendships have developed between people who have very different views of forestry and span the rural-urban divide. Collaboration is not without its challenges and limitations. It is slow, time consuming, and requires a longterm commitment. It can fracture as participants change, if personalities don’t mix well, or when groups perceive that their interests are not being served. Outside groups or individuals can be excluded and feel shut out of decision making. External political forces can push policy in a direction that members cannot support. While collaboration works well when win-win solutions are possible, it can fail when there is long-standing conflict over a limited or scarce resource. Yet collaboration has yielded real progress and has largely withstood the increasing polarization of our political environment. From 2000- 2004, an average of 342 mmbf (million board feet) per year was offered by national forests in Oregon and Washington. From 2016-2020, this increased to an average of 630 mmbf per year. The number of restored acres has significantly increased while habitat conditions and aquatic systems have improved, often through stewardship contracts that reinvest timber sale receipts into restoration work.

Across the region, the trust that has been built through collaboration, even if tenuous in many places, has slowly created the social support to move beyond restoration and toward a broader view of ecological forestry and climate adaptation. After many years of debate, variable retention regeneration treatments to create early-seral habitat or restore huckleberry fields have begun to occur, albeit on a small scale. In eastern Washington, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources’ 20 Year Forest Health Plan has set the stage for largescale management across multiple ownerships to reduce wildfire risk and increase forest resilience.

A similar story has unfolded on lands managed by local governments, land trusts, and conservation organizations. These landowners typically acquired land to preserve it as natural, open space. The notion of managing forests to improve habitat and forest health while also producing wood and revenue was generally met with skepticism or hostility. The development of ecological forestry approaches—along with extensive educational efforts by extension foresters, small landowner organizations, and community forestry groups—has led to an embrace of active management in this sector. Although these landowners represent a small proportion of total forest ownership, their lands are often highly important to local communities and heavily used for recreation. Where I live on Vashon Island, public outreach efforts and successful forest stewardship projects have demonstrated how management can improve forests and meet social needs. Similar efforts have occurred in communities across the region and have played a major role in improving public perceptions of forestry as a tool for sustainable land management.

Looking forward

Although forestry is still ultimately about managing forests to meet a diverse set of human needs, it has become a more multifaceted and challenging profession over the last 25 years. Foresters are now asked to meet a wider set of objectives and expectations and use increasingly complex datasets and technologies. These trends will only continue, while population growth and climate change will make future management challenges even harder. The good news is that collaborative and community engagement processes, along with the adoption of new management strategies, have increased public support for active management and climate adaptation. Furthermore, new knowledge and tools will continue to increase our capacity and ability to address these challenges, especially if we learn to better synthesize information and utilize new communication platforms.

As we look forward, the changes in forestry over the last 25 years in the PNW offer some key lessons for today’s broader societal challenges.

First, science is a foundational part of forest management. We can’t solve problems without good data and an honest, shared attempt to objectively understand human and natural systems, even as we acknowledge that science is not free from human bias. Well trained natural resource professionals are essential in effectively using science. We must thus continue to improve our university and technical degree programs.

Second, collaborative decision making can work. Even after years of conflict, people can find common ground by agreeing upon a shared set of facts, understanding each other’s needs, being open to change, and developing strong relationships. Conflict, ideological battles, and lawsuits will occur, but creative solutions can emerge.

Third, the intensity of conflict has declined as we have slowly moved toward a more socially sustainable middle ground in forest policy. This middle ground does not meet all the needs or goals of every interest group. Yet, it is better than the big pendulum swings of the past that were destabilizing, polarizing, and made investment in new processing facilities less likely by increasing uncertainty. Middle ground is tenuous and must be continually strengthened by seeking out successful solutions that meet peoples’ needs in a fair and equitable manner. We have a lot of work to do in this regard in the many rural and urban communities that are struggling.

Finally, foresters are practical people. We are at our best when we focus on solving problems using the best available science to serve the greatest good. When we are humble, when we are willing to listen, learn, adapt to change, and embrace new knowledge and ideas, we can demonstrate how to bring people together to make all of our diverse communities stronger.

Derek Churchill is a forest health scientist for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. He previously ran his own forestry consulting company for 12 years and was a research scientist at the School for Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington. Churchill can be reached at or (206) 391-9832.

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