In March, Oregon Wild chose to formally withdraw from the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative (OFRC). We did not make this decision lightly, especially since we helped form the collaborative a decade ago. When we stood alongside the Juniper Group Sierra Club in withdrawing, we were the last two remaining environmental advocacy organizations at the table.
Forest collaboratives were initially convened as a place for groups with different viewpoints (like the timber industry and environmentalists) to come together and find common ground. The Forest Service would then, ideally, take input from these groups and develop projects with broad public support, saving time and money litigating fixes to mistakes and poor practices. Sadly, the Ochoco collaborative has increasingly gravitated towards more controversial logging projects and practices.
Things that used to be “off the table”, like removing protections for big and old trees, aggressively logging along streams and rivers, and logging steep slopes, have become the menu of options. Meanwhile conservation priorities like mitigating climate change, dealing with overgrazing, wildlife decline, road densities, and water quality were brushed aside. Managing our public forests for the rare old-growth and large trees, for the ecosystem services they provide, and for recreational and natural benefits have been issues ignored and dismissed in discussions.
We absolutely believe that people with different viewpoints can and should work together. That can only happen when there are clear and defensible guidelines for what is “on” and “off” the table. In recent years, the collaborative has failed in its mission to bring diverse stakeholders to the table. There has been no active recruiting of environmental organizations, and informational presentations have been biased to extractive practices with large machines. The dominance of old-school thinking about forest management has marginalized “best available science” and public values.
Our concerns with OFRC are many, but we feel it is imperative to note that many forest collaboratives are not working as intended. As we noted in our letter: “Unfortunately, the problems we are identifying with OFRC are not isolated to this collaborative. Oregon Wild has participated in more forest collaboratives than any other NGO in the state. We have won awards from the Forest Service for our contributions. Despite our good faith efforts, these negative experiences have become common across the state - from the McKenzie watershed to the Northern Blue Mountains.”
The Ochoco collaborative has clearly lost its way. That is unfortunate both because it threatens the health of a forest that belongs to all of us, and because Congress has increasingly looked to collaboratives as a way to duck responsibility for ensuring Forest Service leaders are accountable to the public, and that old-growth, wildlife, and clean water are protected. All that glitters is not gold, and Oregon's elected leaders need to step up to the plate. We know Senators Wyden and Merkley share the goals of protecting old-growth and ensuring public lands are safeguarded. In the future they must cast a more skeptical eye on the claims made by groups like the Ochoco collaborative.
We have considered the ample criticism that comes with leaving a collaborative, and understand that by doing so we are effectively ceding the field to the timber industry. Perhaps we should have withdrawn several years ago, after OFRC engaged with amending a fundamental rule protecting old growth east of the Cascades. We decided to give it more time, which was a mistake. In our 10 years on the Ochoco collaborative we’ve yet to see our efforts break the vice-like grip that the timber industry still has on our public lands. In fact, we’ve seen this and other collaboratives reinforce that relationship and give cover to the Forest Service to double down on past mismanagement.
We’ll continue to participate in public processes on the Ochoco National Forest, but we can no longer allow our names to lend credibility to a collaborative organization that undermines public values, environmental protections, and sound science.
A version of this blog was published in the Bend Bulletin in March 2022.