Active vs. Passive Management

Active vs. Passive Management

The basic assumption behind both the Elliott State Research Forest Authority and the proposed "research" to be done is that passive management makes more sense and is better for the environment than active management. "Leaving forests to nature" or passive management makes sense to many environmental organizations, but as you can read below, passive management leads to storing more and more flammable carbon in a forest until inevitably, it will burn in a massive fire ... just as the Elliott State Forest has done before. While it is true humans have caused many environmental problems on this planet, the answers will not come from slapping a veneer of "scientific research" on top of a political agenda created by environmentalists. Historian John Barry is right: "When you mix science and politics, you get politics."

In contrast, active management assumes experienced foresters can manage a forest to grow and harvest trees, keep rural people productively employed and protect the environment. Perhaps the best place to learn about active management is the Oregon Forest Resources Institute website available at: Sadly, none of the research proposed for the Elliott State Research Forest will be managed according to active management principles. The small part of the forest scheduled to be managed in an "Intensive" manner will have an average rotation age of 60 years -- much  longer than forests being actively managed in the private sector. As a result, the entire research design for the Elliott State Research Forest lacks an appropriate scientific control because none of the forest will be managed in a similar way to Oregon's well-cared-for and highly productive private forests. 

The scariest part of this entire process comes from understanding the folks behind this effort intend to use the resulting "research" to force new passive-management rules on Oregon's private forestry. So not only will most of the Elliott State Forest be converted into a de facto wilderness area under the pretense of conducting scientific research, but also this process is intended to become a model for all of Oregon's private forests. Here are two quotes explaining this vision:

"Our vision is to establish a publicly owned, long-term research forest aimed at exploring and finding innovative solutions to meet human demands for wood products, adapt to climate change through carbon sequestration, support a diversity of life, invest in local economies, and promote inclusive sustainability." (Page 5, Executive Summary, Forest Management Plan)

"SB 1546 stipulates development of a plan that explains how ESRF forest land will be managed to sustain its diverse values, address fundamental/foundational research questions regarding working forests, and achieve the specific ecosystem good and service outcomes envisioned for it." (Page 8, Introduction, Forest Management Plan)

If the previous paragraphs do not seem convincing, consider this rule about how the Elliott State Research Forest Authority will operate. Page 84 of the Forest Management Plan says the plan will "Suppress all fires but no salvage if mortality occurs." This approach guarantees that after the forest burns once, it will burn again and again because it will be filled with dry snags instead of live tree trunks full of water. Lessons from the 1902-1929 Yacolt Fires, 1933-1951 “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires, and the 1987-2018 Kalmiopsis Wilderness Fires are clear: unless removed, the dead trees from an initial forest fire will fuel even greater and more severe subsequent fires. 

"Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up."  -- Historian Ronald Wright

This partial list shows some of the many habitat consultants, professors, lawyers, regulators and environmentalists involved in creating the OSU research proposal plan.  The full list is available at the OSU Elliott State Forest page. 

The Elliott State Research Forest's political history

This redacted list of the Elliott State Research Forest Advisory Committee was provided by the Department of State Lands in response to a public records request.

A biased advisory committee

In April 2019, The Department of State Lands (DSL) held the first meeting of the Elliott State Research Forest Advisory Committee (ESRFAC) “to provide insight and input on the research forest idea.” This committee’s purpose was to write the rules Oregon State University would have to follow for the new Elliott State Research Forest. 

DSL said the committee’s membership “represents a variety of perspectives on the forest.” The committee’s membership list is shown nearby. Many environmental organizations, such as the Oregon Outdoor Council, Nature Conservancy, Oregon Hunter’s Society, Audubon Society and Wild Salmon Center, had representatives on the Advisory Committee’s membership roster. 

Who was excluded? Nearly everyone with an interest in active forest management. No one from the Oregon Department of Forestry was on the committee, even in an ex-officio capacity, but ODF had managed the Elliott State Forest for many decades until 2017. Another exclusion: all industrial landowning timber companies. No one from companies like Weyerhaeuser, Georgia-Pacific, Lone Rock, Plum Creek, Menasha, Roseburg Forest Products was on the committee: These companies own most of the land surrounding the Elliott State Forest. No one was listed as representing the Oregon Small Woodland Association (OSWA), the Society of American Foresters (SAF), or the Associated Oregon Loggers (AOL), the three largest and most influential groups associated with forestry in Oregon. 

This committee was biased in another way: DSL contracted with Oregon Consensus for $430,000 to manage ESRFAC and other Elliott State Forest planning committees. Oregon Consensus operated as a gatekeeper, filtering information and access to ESRFAC to ensure it arrived at “group consensus.” Because Oregon Consensus never asked ESRFAC to take a formal vote, every decision was made by “group consensus”, so this process sidestepped Oregon’s Open Meeting Laws. (In practice, this just meant people were polled individually, and this provided the cover story necessary to avoid Open Meeting Laws.) All early meetings were held in secret, and all materials submitted to the committee or produced by the committee were kept secret until Dr. Dave Sullivan, a retired Oregon State University professor and a member of the ASTL Board of Directors, began filing Public Records requests, created the website, and began publicly shaming both DSL and OSU for hiding how management rules for a possible Elliott State Research Forest were being secretly decided.

As a result, we expect the public will never know how the research forest’s harvesting restrictions were created by ESRFAC, but the harvest restrictions were so onerous Oregon State University’s College of Forestry decided it could not operate the research forest without losing money. This conclusion appears on Page 28 of the OSU College of Forestry’s “Proposal: Elliott State Research Forest” submitted to the State Land Board in December 2021:

"Based on the current research platform design and allocation of watersheds across the different treatments, preliminary financial analysis demonstrates that the ESRF is not self-sustaining from a financial perspective without an alternative source of revenue to cover the annual deficit, and up front sources of funds to cover contingencies and establishing the ESRF. Currently there is a $2.1 million deficit on an average annual basis for the first 50-years."

This bar graph with acronyms shows the three research treatments to be used in  the OSU Research Plan. Reading and understanding this plan is difficult: It was written by committees of academics. We have done our best to summarize it fairly and clearly in this page.

If you don't trust our summary, feel free to read the original. For example, here is the plan's description of "Extensive" forest treatments:

"While intensive and reserve treatments provide opportunities to study management extremes, a third research treatment, extensive research treatments, will strive to increase forest complexity to help achieve multiple values across the landscape. The purpose of these widespread dynamically managed forests will be to explore the implementation of a new set of alternatives in a continuum between intensive plantation management and unlogged reserves. The research design on this continuum of extensive options will enhance diverse forest characteristics and better integrate them with riparian areas to meet a broad set of objectives and values in any stand. We can accomplish this goal by retaining (or creating) structural complexity while ensuring conditions exist to obtain regeneration and sustain the complex forest structure through time. Extensive alternatives represent the most significant opportunity for learning and expanding timber management’s frontiers by aiming to simultaneously achieve biodiversity objectives and timber demand at the stand scale. The extensive treatments are where we will test a vision for a genuinely sustainable approach to land management - reflecting social values, needs, and ecosystem function. The Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Land Management are implementing similar alternative approaches making the scientific findings from the ESRF on how species and ecological processes, such as carbon sequestration, respond to extensive treatments especially relevant." (From page 19.)

Passive Management

The Elliott State Research Forest Authority's  "research" treatments

The draft OSU Management Plan would break the Elliott Forest into the three basic "research" treatments, as can be seen in the nearby bar graph.

"These unlogged forests are ideal for monitoring ecosystem attributes such as biodiversity, recreation, carbon cycling, and water in the absence of any timber harvest. Thus, they serve as benchmarks for research treatments and managed habitat."

David Katz posted this photo on Facebook and said, 

"Today, I stopped at a very memorable location. The trees you see & those I’m standing beside were just 1 foot tall saplings when myself & some other awesome hippie tree planter friends planted them way back in 1977.

"This is Cerine Creek, just past Logsden, OR on the way to Moonshine Park in Lincoln County. From Oct ‘75 through Sept ‘78 I personally planted 400,000+ trees along the OR coast & parts of WA. Our boss, Bob Zybach, ran a tree planting, thinning & falling company called Phoenix Reforestation."

The coastal land in this photo has nearly identical productivity and climate to the Elliott State Forest, and at age 43, these trees are ready for a final harvest.

Rotation Ages

If you view a working forest as a crop, then your goal will naturally be to grow trees as fast as possible. Each extra year in a crop rotation adds to the holding cost, so practicing foresters have a huge incentive to find seedlings that shoot out of the ground and grow quickly. This viewpoint is similar to the Green Revolution in traditional agriculture that saw farmland production explode on a per acre basis in the 1900s. Food shortages were abolished with this philosophy, and forestry has been following a similar path toward ever more productivity from ever shorter rotation cycles.

Essentially all industrial timberland in Oregon is managed with short rotations to produce lots of timber volume quickly in this way, and nearly all logging equipment and sawmills have been optimized for small logs: computerized equipment cuts these logs rapidly and efficiently.

The Elliott State Forest has productive soils and plenty of rainfall, so it grows trees quickly. This means 25- to 50-year-old Doug fir stands are potentially ready for final harvest. If we look to the future, rotation ages are likely to decrease further as better genetics and management methods allow ever shorter growing cycles.

The Elliott State Research Forest Plan: ultra-long rotations

Growing trees with long rotation cycles has several potential benefits. For example, it can grow trees with clear lumber and tight growth rings that are especially prized for visual appearance. This, of course, grows a specialty product and wouldn't be a suitable strategy for the entire Elliott State Forest. Also, long rotations lower logging and reforestation costs because harvesting happens less frequently. But this mild cost reduction doesn't come anywhere near compensating for the loss of frequent harvest revenue. Few industrial or private landowners want to wait longer than necessary to grow commercial-size trees.

The latest Forest Management  Plan suggests its "intensive" areas will average 60 years. This use of the word "intensive" would be confusing to practicing foresters; more accurate terms might be "leisurely" or "lethargic" forest management. Or possibly "agenda-based" management.

The "extensive" areas would have even longer average rotations: 100 years!

Even a 60-year rotation cycle seems unnecessarily long to industrial foresters in high-site lands in the Douglas Fir Region. If seedlings have superior genetics, and the forest is actively managed to receive frequent thinning to remove the weaker trees, then the few remaining trees at age sixty will be huge -- too big for most sawmills. Fifty years ago sawmills paid a substantial premium for large logs:  today, few mill are capable of processing them at all.

Of interest is the fact that the Elliott was used for many years as a premium and pioneering location to develop progeny test sites and experimental commercial thinning projects. Can OSU or DSL representatives even locate these areas? Should they not be an important focus of applied science research? Why are they not even mentioned or located on the DSL/OSU management proposal?

Forest stands are subject to lots of catastrophic disturbances, so waiting extra decades exposes the landowner to large, uninsurable and unnecessary risks that are often completely outside the landowner's control. For example, on October 12, 1962 the Columbus Day windstorm knocked down 15 billion board feet in one afternoon. Instantly the price of logs plummeted because so many landowners needed to harvest fallen trees at once. Similar problems can be caused by insects, root rot, disease, and landslides. The largest and most expensive disasters come from fire. A really hot fire can char the remaining trees so badly that mills won't want to take them -- but fires are explored in more detail below.

The biggest argument against long rotation cycles comes from how it destroys any incentive for the landowner to actively manage the forest. Humans don't live long, and collectively we are impatient. This means a potential payoff 60 to 120 years from now is viewed as nearly worthless by most people -- it's just too far away to justify significant investments today. If we want working forests to be productive, we need landowners to actively manage them by aggressively replanting, thinning, and otherwise carefully tending their forests. That won't happen with ultra-long rotation cycles.

Conclusion: The OSU Plan would "actively manage" only a small part of the Elliott State Forest; the bulk of it would be locked up in a de facto wilderness area. The “actively managed” areas would use ultra-long rotation cycles that are risky and don't make economic sense. Academic professors like to research unusual and quirky things; they live in a publish-or-perish world that rewards promoting new ideas regardless of their practicality. But the rest of us live in the real world, and we cannot afford to wait 60 to 100 years to see whether the latest unconventional academic theory will work. This explains why the Home page of this site says the OSU Plan proposes to "conduct academic research of little interest to foresters who manage Oregon's working forests."

This book describes how Indian burning has shaped coastal forests for thousands of years. It carefully documents how catastrophic fires repeatedly swept through the Elliott forest area in the 1800s. The book is available for purchase on 

The 1879 Coos Bay Fire

This hand-annotated map comes from Jerry Phillips' book, Caulked Boots and Cheese Sandwiches. It shows how a fire that started near Scottsburg spread across an estimated 300,000 acres to the southwest, covering the vast majority of the Elliott Forest. Although the map and its caption suggest this fire happened in 1868, more recent oral histories show the 1868 "Coos Fire" was smaller, and the catastrophic "Big Burn" actually occurred in 1879.

Timber volumes on the Elliott State Forest in 2020 are six times what they were in 1930, despite more than 50 years of intensive management for timber crops. Whether the volume will double again or will return to the 1930 level will largely depend on when -- not if -- the next catastrophic fire happens. 


If you take a long-term view of the OSU Research Plan, it would transform the Elliott State Forest by devoting over 80 percent of the land to reserves or near-reserve status (100-plus year rotation ages). So if we fast-forward mentally 80 years to the year 2100, the average age of these trees could theoretically be 150 years.

The OSU Plan suggests these dense, old and unmanaged stands will help endangered species and sequester carbon in the forest. These goals are admirable, but the OSU Plan rests entirely on two untested assumptions:

These assumptions are worth discussing based on what we know about Oregon Coast range fires. 

The history of catastrophic Oregon Coast range fires

The history of catastrophic Oregon Coast range fires is one of incredible, nearly instantaneous changes to vast areas of the physical and biological environment.

Nearly all these fires were caused by humans. This isn't a single record of a large-scale wildfire (10,000s of acres) ever being caused by lightning in the region during the last 200 years of written history. When lightning does occur, it typically is accompanied by drenching fire-suppressing rains.

More importantly, the northern, western, and southern perimeters of present-day Elliott Forest were peopled by communities of Kelawatset, Hanis, and Miluk families. Yoncalla Kalapuyans -- renowned for their ability to use fire to shape and manage their vast homeland camas prairies and oak savannahs -- lived upstream to the east and northeast.

All catastrophic-scale (100,000s of acres) Coast Range wildfires on record took place during late summer/early fall with winds from the east and northeast, a time of year when Kalapuyans did most of their landscape-scale burning. These people, on all sides of the forest and like people everywhere, used fire on a daily basis to cook, heat, and provide light. They also used it seasonally to hunt, clear fields and trails, and rejuvenate favored plants. Woody fuels were gathered and stored constantly, whenever and wherever they were available. "Large, woody debris" did not exist over a large portion of the environment; it quickly became fuel or was used for tools, construction materials, carvings, or other purposes. The same with accessible dead trees.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s some of the largest and most destructive forest fires in US history took place on the western slopes of the Coast Range, including the Elliott Forest area. These fires gained international attention and were known collectively as the "Great Fires."

The earliest known "Great Fire" was the circa 1770 Millicoma Fire  that burned to the eastern and southern boundaries of the Elliott, apparently buffered by ridgelines of mature, even-aged, second-growth Douglas fir. It is significant as being the earliest documented catastrophic-scale wildfire in Oregon history, as well as being the only one on record that occurred before white discovery and exploration.

The 1879 Coos Fire burned 90 percent of the remainder of the Elliott, by which time many of the trees that survived the Millicoma Fire became young old-growth; with some older trees "estimated to have been about 300 years old."

The 1962 Columbus Day Storm blew down 100 million board feet of timber on the western slope of the Elliott, resulting in a major extension of the existing road system and the removal of an additional 200 million feet of trees during salvage operations. Today this area of logged, reforested, and remaining mature second growth contains most of the "critical habitat" for marbled murrelets on the Elliott. There is no scientific justification for this determination, which has never been tested. The Elliott offers a unique opportunity to do just that -- and this information is critically needed over much of the Douglas Fir Region.

This history likely reflects most of the "natural pattern" of the western slope of the Oregon Coast Range during the past several thousand years: large extents of second-growth even-aged Douglas fir representing past wildfire and windstorm events, interspersed with patches of old-growth, alder, and of newer burns, landslides, windthrow that had yet to develop a stand of mature trees. This remains a characteristic pattern for much of the western Coast Range, and one to which people and our native animal populations have adapted over the past several thousand years.

The "shaping" of the Elliott State Forest by fire can be technically characterized as the result of a long-term series of botanical responses to constant and cumulative human disturbances caused by daily, seasonal, and episodic fires of varying size and intensity.

In light of this history of Coast Range fire, let's consider both assumptions behind OSU Research Plan.

Assumption #1: We can grow dense forests with 150-year-old trees

Perhaps the best answer to this assumption came with the 2020 Labor Day fires: a strong east wind fanned flames to burn more than a million acres, and firefighters were helpless to stop the destruction until the winds died down. So with all our modern technology, we have no clue how to stop catastrophic fires without nature's help.

Conclusion: Attempting to store huge quantities of carbon in the Elliott State Forest is a dangerous and expensive idea. Eventually most of the trees will burn, and they will burn hotter and faster when they get older and larger. After burning, or if mortality is by other means, they will rot. These processes will make the Elliott "carbon neutral" over time and have no effect on global climate.

Assumption #2: Endangered species will benefit from a dense forest with 150-year-old trees.

The best evidence suggests catastrophic fires have repeatedly burned the Elliot for  at least the last several thousand of years. This means Coast Range forests have never been blanketed with large dense stands of old-growth trees as many environmentalists and even some forest scientists have claimed. Over this time span, native species have adapted to the major disturbances caused by catastrophic fires. 

So, a strong argument can be made that the Elliott State Research Forest Management Plan will pack the forest with more trees and fewer openings than the native wildlife are adapted to live in. This might make sense if our goal is to create new species or find  out how the existing species adapt to an alien environment, but that is not the stated intent of our endangered species act. And, of course, when an inevitable wildfire does get started, if the forest is packed with more trees and carbon than ever before, the resulting catastrophic fire will devastate wildlife.

A picture of Jerry Franklin.

Jerry Franklin's Ideas about the Elliott State Research Forest Ideas

Jerry Franklin is internationally famous as "the guru of old growth." His lengthy career includes being a research forester and chief plant ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis and professor of forest sciences at Oregon State University.  More information about his background can be found at the Jerry Franklin page of the Oregon Encyclopedia, a project of the Oregon Historical Society.

The following ideas come from Appendix 13, Summary of Peer Reviews, at the back of the Elliott State Research Forest Proposal prepared by the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, pages 111 through 119.

“First, I find the concept of conducting an experiment that essentially involves the entire property at the outset of OSU’s stewardship to be inappropriate. There is no way that any of us can possibly anticipate the critical forest conservation issues that we are going to be needing to address one, two or three decades from now. I don’t believe that the most important challenge is going to be how to divide up amongst the different management philosophies though I may be wrong. Our track record at figuring out the most important issue(s) has been very poor in academia. We are going to be surprised. That being the case, taking what will be your major research property and committing it all to an experiment of any kind along with committing all of the financial resources necessary to sustain it is not – to use a kind word – prudent. All of the verbiage in the proposal about being able to superimpose many research projects on the current design may be true – but almost certainly there will be important research that needs to be done that will have been locked out or grossly compromised by the treatments imposed on the entire property. Thank God we in FS research did not do to the H. J. Andrews what many of us thought we should do – i.e., make it (the entire Andrews) a model of modern forest practices circa the 1960s and 1970s. I will make only one more comment about this – forest academics have an abominable record of identifying and conducting fundamentally important forest science projects.”

“Second, despite your efforts to find a way around it, I do not find that the design meets the high standards that are required for a statistically valid and, perhaps more important, a socially convincing outcome at some future date. The treatments are not randomly assigned and all of the manipulations and rationalizations that are created will not produce a definitive outcome on the questions posed. You don’t like the aggregation that takes place with a random assignment? Then do a stratified random assignment where environmentally comparable watersheds are clustered in groups of four and randomly assign within those clusters. What you have done requires far too much explanation, manipulation, and rationalization to be a clean experiment. And if that isn’t enough, you don’t have any true controls! You need to have untreated controls right along with the treatments. Considering the big reserve to be a control is not credible. You need control “treatments” if you are going to be able to assess changes in biota, for example.”

“Third, I see a lot about impacts of management on water yields, quality, biota but I see nothing in the plan about how you are going to assess those impacts. Watershed level studies require extended calibration periods (including on control watersheds) so that you can statistically assess changes following treatments. That kind of work requires incredible investments in time and money (and controls). We can see from the Andrews the incredible value of such calibrated watershed experiments but I don’t see where that is built into this research plan – which could make inferences about aquatic systems should we say – difficult?! Unless you are really prepared to do watershed level assessments of impacts there really is no reason for you to be doing treatments at the levels of watersheds – is there?”

“Fourth, the whole notion that you are doing a meaningful test of the TRIAD concept is nonsense. You are trying to test it at the wrong scale. TRIAD in the PNW forests is occurring at the level of large landscapes, not small watersheds. The production emphasis element of TRIAD are the fiber farms of the REITs and TIMOs and are being done on a very short rotation. The integrated element of TRIAD are represented by the federal forests (BLM anyway), trust forests managed by WA DNR, and many private forest lands, where ecological and economic goals are being integrated through ecologically-based management that includes recognition of special management areas (e.g., riparian habitats) and various forms and intensities of retention. The hard-core conservation element of TRIAD are the large reserved forest areas like the Late Successional Reserves on federal lands, national parks, wilderness areas, private reserves and trusts, etc. I do not find this experiment to be a credible test of what I understood as the Maine folks’ version of TRIAD.”

And, as I noted initially, I don’t consider an experiment about how to divide forest landscapes at any scale among production and conservation goals to be a high priority in our current world; that probably has a much higher social than technical element to it anyway. There are so many important things to be done and this is not one of them. A comprehensive test of alternative approaches to preparing our managed forest landscapes to meet the challenges of climate change is one of them – great that you are aware of the continental-wide collaboration that is going on in this regard, but your current experiment does not fit the design. Some credible silvicultural experimentation to begin better quantifying the tradeoffs between ecological and economic goals in ecological forestry treatments would be another one.”

I have probably said more than I needed to at this point. It is your proposal. I do not think that it does credit to the institution or yourselves; you can do much better than this. Personally, I think you need to start all over beginning with a truly long-term perspective on the potential of the property and an examination of what research will benefit the people (and forests) of the PNW both in the short and long term.”