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Plans for a sick forest include logging. Environmentalists protest.

In a swath of the Pacific Northwest, one of North America’s most important tree species is dying at an alarming rate. This spring, as in years past, Douglas fir needles are turning yellow, red and then falling to the ground in forests in southwestern Oregon.

Experts blame a combination of factors including insect attacks, drought and higher temperatures due to climate change. Decades of fire suppression have exacerbated the problems by disrupting the natural balance of ecosystems.

“The drought, the heat, the climate change are killing trees on a massive scale, and there’s no clear way to put the genie back in the bottle,” said Rob Jackson, an ecologist at Stanford University’s Doerr School of Sustainability who studies the ways climate change is affecting forests and grasslands. “We’re setting our forests up for death.”

The Oregon crisis highlights the critical importance of forest management as climate change reshapes the natural world. Foresters say they must cut down Douglas firs in many cases, whether dead or alive, to minimize wildfire risk, promote forest health and help ecosystems adapt to the changing climate. Their plans include selling some salvageable timber.

But those plans have struck a chord with some environmentalists. They distrust government agencies and accuse them of favoring logging over nature conservation.

“I understand why environmental groups are suspicious, and they should be,” said Mindy Crandall, an associate professor of forest policy at Oregon State University. Federal agencies “haven’t listened to the public for too long.”

The mistrust is an example of a challenge: How do the agencies that manage much of the land in the western half of the country deal with competing mandates for conservation, resource extraction, and fire safety as the health of the West’s forests declines?

Douglas firs are a keystone species for the region’s vast, ecologically diverse forests, which are critical to maintaining a wide range of plant and animal life. They are also one of the country’s most important timber trees and are widely used for residential construction and as Christmas trees.

More species died in southwestern Oregon 2015 to 2019 than in the previous 40 years combinedThe deaths, while concentrated in regions at the lower end of the elevation and rainfall range for Douglas firs, have spread since 2020: While less than 5,000 acres of land in the state experienced tree death in 2021, that number rose to more than 350,000 hectares in 2022.

This year, the Biden administration formally strengthened the Bureau of Land Management’s conservation authority, giving the agency more latitude to prioritize environmental concerns in conjunction with its other mandates. And experts including Dr. Crandall said the bureau and other federal agencies have become more balanced and clearly concerned about climate change in recent decades.

But environmental groups still harbor long-held suspicions nearly a century of government-sanctioned logging.

Nathan Gehres grew up in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon in the 1980s. At the time, the region was torn apart by a conservation struggle known locally as the Timber Wars, as environmentalists fought to limit logging projects sponsored by the United States Forest Service and the BLM.

“I know people who call them the Bureau of Lumber and Mining,” said Mr. Gehres, who now works at the Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council, a nonprofit organization that tries to develop consensus solutions for natural resource management. “They’ve made mistakes in the past, and I think there’s hardly a government agency that hasn’t made mistakes in the past. But also, three-quarters of the Applegate Valley is federal land. And so they’re an extremely important partner.”

The BLM is proposing a multi-year project called the Strategic Operations for Safety plan, known as SOS, to cut down both living and dead trees. The trees are spread across about 5,000 hectares of land the agency manages in the Applegate Valley region, which officials say is likely to pose safety risks during wildfires.

Because it can be very expensive to remove just dead trees, the living trees will most likely be sold as timber, “paying their way out of the forest,” said Elizabeth Burghard, the agency’s district manager.

The BLM is reaching out to the community. Ms. Burghard’s team recently invited residents on a field trip to view the dying trees in an effort to show the community the scale of the crisis, dispel skepticism, and convince locals of the urgency of the problem.

Luke Ruediger, a resident of the region and conservation director for the environmental group Klamath Forest Alliance, attended that excursion and said he tried to keep an open mind about the BLM’s intentions. But while he was struck by the declining health of the forest, he said he remained concerned that the agency could manipulate the situation to justify selling more timber for commercial purposes.

Mr Ruediger acknowledged the need to address the fire risk in the area. “But there is a history of heavy forest management here,” he said. “There is a history of prejudice against the timber industry.”

Dominick DellaSala, the chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a forest conservation organization, who has visited the forests with Mr. Ruediger to witness the Douglas-fir dieback, said he was still suspicious of the agency’s motivation. “Whatever the agencies do, they’re going to cherry-pick the science to get the result they want,” he said.

“You have to address climate change because that’s a big part of what’s driving this,” added Dr. DellaSala. “And you need to reduce the pressure on forests from these types of logging events.”

Bureau of Land Management officials said the SOS plan was aimed squarely at improving safety, especially for firefighters. And based on 15 years of monitoring of responses, the agency is confident its plans can be successful, said Jena Volpe, a fire ecologist with the agency.

“When the BLM does commercial timber sales, our primary goal is forest health, and the economic value of the trees is a byproduct of that,” said Kyle Sullivan, spokesman for the agency’s district office in Medford, Oregon. “It’s something that a lot of the public doesn’t necessarily understand. Our commercial timber sales are really focused on forest health.”

Mr Sullivan said the main focus of the SOS program is on removing dead and dying trees, rather than felling healthy trees for commercial purposes.

Researchers in Oregon and across the country emphasized the need for the BLM and other landowners to control the decline of the Douglas fir. It’s not just the BLM that’s dealing with trees in crisis. In the city of Ashland, Oregon, operations are also underway to remove dead and dying Douglas fir trees to manage public safety risks and improve forest health.

According to researchers, forests are becoming increasingly unhealthy and if left alone, they will in many cases become more susceptible to severe forest fires and more vulnerable to drought stress and disease.

Instead, it will become increasingly important to manage them to increase security, improve climate resilience and even create sustainable forms of extraction. This may involve thinning to reduce tree density in a particular area, removing dead trees or planting species that are more resilient in a warmer climate.

While it may seem intuitive to remove human involvement and allow the forest to regain some form of balance, researchers say that after centuries of human intervention, forests are unable to chart their course on their own. correct.

“There is a real need to reduce tree density,” said Dr. Crandall of Oregon State. “We have tinkered with the natural system so much over the past 150 years, mainly through fire suppression, that the forest is simply completely out of balance.”

But it will be a challenge for federal agencies to get there, said Rachael Hamby, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a nonpartisan conservation group.

“They should try to make everyone happy, but in the end they don’t make anyone happy,” she said.

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