Bob Zybach was still running reforestation crews in 1988, but Northern Spotted Owl jitters and a housing starts were the slowest they’d been since the mortgage interest rate hit an all-time high 17.4 percent in February 1982. Zybach’s tree planting business was on life support.
In fact, his once robust contracting business had sunk so far into the nation’s economic morass that he told students in a graduate level forestry class at Oregon State University that he was seriously thinking about returning to school after a 20 year absence.
Fortuitously, Carl Stoltenberg was in Zybach’s audience. He was in the last two years of his 23-year run as OSU Forestry Dean and Director of the university’s Forest Research Lab – and easily one of the most recognized and respected forestry deans in the nation. As Dean, he has doubled the size of OSU forestry’s teaching program and increased minority enrollment from near zero to 25 percent.
Now he wanted to speak privately with Zybach. Had I been in the audience, I could have predicted what would happen next. Despite the loss of most of his eyesight, Stoltenberg still had an exceptional instinct for top talent and he saw something in Bob that he wanted to encourage.
“He asked me to consider enrolling in the College of Forestry, so I loaded up on student loans and did it,” Zybach told me in an email note last week. “I’m still paying on some of those loans.” Bob finished his Master’s degree in 1999 – two years before Carl died in Arizona – and his PhD two years after death.
Carl Stoltenberg: Dean
Under Stoltenberg’s leadership, OSU forestry had tackled one of the most vexing reforestation problems in Oregon, amid high elevation frost pockets between Medford and Klamath Falls. He had negotiated a much needed update of the Oregon Forest Practices Act in 1971 finessed what became known as the “Beuter Report,” a series of periodic assessments of the sustainability of Oregon’s public and private lands timber supply assembled by the late John Beuter, a brilliant but blunt PhD forest economist who had attended Michigan State University on a boxing scholarship.
Two quite remarkable but very different deans followed Stoltenberg: George Brown, an affable man with a PhD in hydrology, succeeded Stoltenberg in 1990 and transformed OSU forestry into the leading recipient of grants and contracts among the nation’s forestry schools before his retirement in 1999.
Hal Salwasser came next. We had been friends since his days as the Forest Service’s Region 1 Forester in Missoula, Montana. I followed his career from Missoula to the Pacific Southwest Research Station in San Francisco, where he served as Chief Executive Officer before jumping ship to become OSU forestry dean after George retired.
In a 1999 retirement interview with the Oregon State press office, Brown spoke frankly about what he saw in the politics of Oregon’s fast changing demographic.
“This is not an ivory tower forestry school,” Brown said. “Oregon is a bubbling, seething cauldron of difficult, even wicked forest policy questions. Our faculty has played a prominent role in answering questions while staying away from advocacy, which is rule number one. Those issues will only intensify as the population grows and urbanizes.”
Hal Salwasser was nearly boiled alive in that cauldron in 2006 for endorsing legislation that would have required prompt salvage and restoration on federal lands following catastrophic events. The event at the center of the proposal was the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which swept over nearly 500,000 acres on southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest.
Right on cue, the so-called “Donato Report,” surfaced in a Science Magazine expose declaring that “Unexpectedly, by disturbing the soil, salvage logging after a fire in a Douglas fir forest reduced conifer seedling regeneration by 71 percent and also added kindling to the forest floor.”
The report drew its name from Daniel Donato, then a forestry graduate student at Oregon State. Six OSU forestry professors joined with the Forest Service in saying that Donato’s field research needed more study before its controversial conclusions could be verified or refuted. They thus asked Science to give them adequate time to review the report.
Science refused and the battle was on. Before it wound down, Salwasser stood publicly accused of stifling academic freedom, a charge that was patently ridiculous given the fact that he had publicly defended Donato, who faced withering criticism from several Oregon lumber manufacturers.
What the Corvallis Times-Gazette called “a protracted lynching” did not begin to die down until Oregon State students gave Hal a 66 percent vote of confidence in a non-binding college-wide vote June 2006. You can read our 2006 Alchemy at OSU Donato report here.
I don’t think Hal ever recovered from the incident. I last saw him in 2012, the year he resigned his deanship in favor of a less controversial teaching position and four years before his death at 69. Tom Maness, a brilliant PhD forest economist with a strong background in wood engineering, took Hal’s spot in 2012 but died following a lingering illness in 2018. Which brings us to the current dean, Tom DeLuca.
I have never met DeLuca, though I wish I had during his three year tenure as Dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. But on the off chance that we might someday, I want to paraphrase the sage advice George Brown offered when he retired 22 years ago. Rule 1: stay the hell out of the political weeds. Rule 2: see Rule 1.
My late friend Hal did not heed George’s advice and it cost him a brilliant career and possibly his life.
Now DeLuca has immersed himself – and the College of Forestry he leads – in an eyebrow-raising proposal that could cost the forestry school dearly. At issue is the political fate of the Elliott State Forest, an enormously valuable natural asset the State Board of Forestry has been trying to unload for several years. Why? Begin with the 2012 Portland Audubon-Cascadia Wildlands-Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit that foreclosed management of the 93,000-acre Elliott.
Because threatened marbled murrelets were at the center of the lawsuit a federal judge ruled for the plaintiffs and the Oregon Department of Forestry cancelled 28 timber sales. Annual harvest volume fell from 40 million to 15 million feet. The State Land Board subsequently found a buyer for what remained of the Elliott that could be sold but the public outcry was such that the state withdrew its offer.
Enter the state legislature. In 2017, it allocated $100 million in bonds – less than half the fire sale $220 million needed to buy the Elliott from the Common School Fund. Given its Site 1 productivity, the Elliott is probably worth somewhere between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion.
Then, in 2019 the State Land Board hired OSU’s school of forestry to develop a new management plan for the Elliott. DeLuca was hired the following December. By September 2020 he was so confident in that the plan would propose that he said publicly that he saw in the Elliott, “A tremendous opportunity to push the limits of what sustainable forest management looks like on the landscape.”
If Tom DeLuca thinks Portland Audubon et al is going to allow him to “push the limits” of sustainable forestry on the Elliott, he is living in a fool’s paradise. They’ve already won and they know it, which is why they’ve moved on to pulling the political levers on a habitat conservation plan encompassing all private forestland in western Oregon.
DeLuca’s department was paid north of $820,000 through December 2020 for its plan, monies that will presumably be withdrawn from the Common School Fund. Why? Weren’t the matrix lands included in the Northwest Forest Plan supposed to provide areas where sustainable forest management options could be tested?
They were indeed, but serial litigators have blocked most experiments and millions of acres of spotted owl and marbled murrelet habitat have been lost in wildfires. Does DeLuca know this? Does he know that Portland’s hoi polloi will ruin his academic career – and the College of Forestry – before it ever allows any tinkering on the Elliott?
Keep The Children’s Forest
If there is any good news in this horror story it involves “Keep the Children’s Forest,” a diverse group assembled by Dave Sullivan, a retired OSU business professor and tree farmer, and our old friend, Bob Zybach. On January 10, Sullivan and Zybach sent a letter to DeLuca and OSU president, F.K. Alexander, requesting a meeting to discuss issues of common interest concerning the Elliott Research Forest Plan.
We happily signed on to the letter as did nine others, including Jerry Phillips, Elliott State Forest Manager for decades, and Margaret Bird, Founder of Advocates for School Trust Lands. You can read the letter and its supporting documentation here.
A week later – January 18 – Sullivan wrote a separate letter to the Oregon State University trustees, President and Dean suggesting that they immediately look into the matter. You can read it here.
Alexander replied to Sullivan and Zybach in a generic letter you can read on the Keep the Children’s Forest website https://sites.google.com/view/keepthechildrensforest/
Not a peep from Tom DeLuca. Yes, Carl Stoltenberg is rolling over in his grave.