Writing on the Wall

Thirty years ago scientists predicted the effects of climate change on Northwest forests

The headline read “Global warming called threat to forests.” You may have noticed similar stories recently in the media about dying Douglas-fir forests in the Willamette Valley.

This headline is not from any of those stories. This was from The Oregonian on Feb. 12, 1989, and was prompted by a forest conference I attended in Eugene.

The northern spotted owl was in the news. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service were scrambling to figure out how to keep “the cut” up while giving lip service to protecting the ancient forest habitat the owl was dependent on. Signs pointed to lower timber harvests on federal lands. The handwriting was on the wall. Ancient forest advocates were on a roll. For the forest products industry, there was panic in the streets. 

Oregon had spent the 1980s pulling itself out of one of the worst recessions in the state’s history. It is impossible to overstate how devastating the recession of the ’80s was to the Oregon economy. 

Up to 1980, Oregon was heavily dependent on the forest products industry. It accounted for 15 percent of the state gross domestic product (GDP). It’s about 2 percent today. After a collapse of the housing industry, demand for lumber plummeted and mills closed all across the state. Oregon actually lost population in the 1980s.

The U-Haul trailer company offered free trailers to anyone moving to Oregon. It was that bad.

Vic Atiyeh, elected governor in 1980, was the first governor to actively recruit new industries to come to Oregon. He was the first governor to court business in Asia, earning him the nickname “Trader Vic.”

Oregonians reacted by creating the lottery in 1984 to fund a new economic development department. Neil Goldschmidt campaigned for governor in 1986 under the banner “The Oregon Comeback.” As governor, he took economic development to the next level by recruiting high technology companies like Intel to locate in Oregon. 

By 1989, Oregon was recovering as the state’s economy diversified. The forest products industry was bouncing back as well. The industry had invested in new technology to process smaller logs and increase production efficiencies. There were fewer jobs, though, and, since the mills were no longer unionized, lower wages. 

Just as things were looking up for the industry, along came the northern spotted owl issue. The owl was an indicator species for forest ecosystems that many Oregonians had been fighting for decades to protect. The owl was gaining in legal status and about to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. 

The timber industry was worried. Many of the mills coming back online from the recession still depended on public forests for their logs. The spotted owl was going to eat into that timber supply significantly. Meanwhile, advocates for protecting ancient and old-growth forests were being empowered by increasing public support. 

This was the social and economic setting for “Oregon Forests in 2010,” a conference sponsored by Congressman Peter DeFazio, and State Sen. David Dix in Eugene on Feb. 11, 1989. The goal was to provide a 20-year look forward to what we could expect our forests to be in 2010.

The conference had an impressive lineup of speakers and panelists, including the chief of the Forest Service and state director of the BLM, forest scientist Jerry Franklin and panels with economists, conservationists and industry leaders.

For the most part, the speakers were predictable. The state forester and BLM director talked timber supply. The Forest Service chief touted management plans. Conservationists advocated for protecting ancient forests, and the industry reps talked “sustained yield.” Everyone said pretty much what was expected, except for Franklin.

In 1989, he was already controversial for his paper “A Kinder and Gentler Forestry in Our Future.” He advocated for a different kind of logging, logging with a reduced ecological impact on the land. At the time, it was called “New Forestry.”

New Forestry, timber supply, spotted owls and ancient forests were what we all expected to hear him address.  But that’s not what Franklin came to talk about. He had something more important on his mind, something more urgent.

He came to talk about climate change. 

Franklin came with a warning about how it would impact forests, and everything else, in the very near future. 

He had recently co-authored a paper, “Potential Effects of Climate Change on Stand Development in the Pacific Northwest.” In it, he predicted an increase in catastrophic disturbances, like fires, resulting in “a significant loss of forest land in the Douglas-fir and hemlock forest regions of southwest Oregon.”

He testified that global warming was occurring and the only argument was how much and how fast. “It is unclear if the predicted increase of 2-5 degrees [Celsius] will drastically change our forests by 2010, but the change is certain by 2050.”

And, as the climate changes, trees are exposed to “new conditions that can affect their rate of regeneration, growth, or mortality.” He predicted “changing patterns of forest development, structure, or composition that would have major ecological and economic consequences.” 

Franklin spoke to the urgency of climate change, including a bombshell from his paper: “Understanding how forests respond to changes in temperature is critical in predicting the global impacts of increased CO2, because forests cover more than one-third of the globe and store more than 80 percent of the global terrestrial organic carbon. Changes in the carbon storage characteristics of forests could alter atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and thus have a feed-back effect on future climate conditions (my emphasis).”

I attended another major forest conference that year, Gov. Goldschmidt’s June 25 “spotted owl summit.” No one talked about climate. A few years later, I attended President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Conference in Portland, also prompted by the northern spotted owl. Climate change was not on the agenda. 

Thirty years ago, at a forest conference in Eugene, forest scientist Franklin made an urgent plea for us to acknowledge a threat to forests, and to everything else, from the changing climate. Oregonian writer Jim Kadera was one of the few who got it, and he made it the focus of his story. 

According to NOAA/NASA, the decade ending in 2019 was the warmest decade ever. And, just as Franklin warned in 1989, our forests have moved to a hotter, drier world with increased drought and more intense wildfire.

Kadera’s 1989 headline “Global warming called threat to forests” could just as well have been written yesterday. And the climate clock just keeps on ticking. 

Bob Warren retired in 2012 as the regional business development officer for Business Oregon for Lane, Lincoln, Linn and Benton counties. Prior to that, he was a senior policy advisor to Gov. Barbara Roberts and district aide and natural resource advisor for Rep. Peter DeFazio.