“Traditional vs. Collaborative” – how OSU’s leaders are violating their collaborative commitment to forest planning

OSU’s 2019 old-growth clearcut: the stump of the 420+ year-old tree. This is the result of OSU’s “active management” of the McDonald-Dunn “Research Forests”.

In the aftermath of OSU’s old-growth cutting debacle in 2019, the interim dean, Anthony Davis, promised outraged citizens some of the most significant changes in the history of OSU’s Research Forests. He publicly acknowledged that the old-growth cutting was a “mistake” that did not align with the College’s values or the 2005 Forest Plan. He responded to our calls to set aside the adjacent 36 acres of old-growth forest near Sulphur Springs by designating it as a “mature forest reserve”. He also formally reinstated their 2005 Research Forest Plan, which a former dean had abandoned a decade earlier. Finally, he promised the public a collaborative planning process to develop the next forest plan.

For those of us who’ve followed OSU’s insular and antiquated approach to managing these public forests, these changes were a monumental shift. Never before had a dean of the College of Forestry acknowledged their failures in such an honest and open manner – and made such substantive changes in response to community pressure.  OSU professor emeritus Norm Johnson described these changes as: “the most important step in forest conservation on the Mac-Dunn in its history”.  While the interim dean ended up leaving OSU a year later, the changes he announced in 2019 are still in effect today.

Nearly 100 citizens turned up to express their outrage over OSU’s forest management at this August, 2019 meeting (James Day Mid-Valley Media).

The commitment to a collaborative forest planning process was conveyed in writing by the former dean in his letter of October 21st, 2019.  He wrote:

This letter serves as a formal “un-suspension” of the 2005 Forest Plan, which will remain in place until the new, collaboratively developed forest management plan is complete.

He also responded to our call to protect older trees and stands in the Research Forests:

I remain concerned that ambiguity in the 2005 Forest Plan exists around older trees and stands. Accordingly, I have directed our forest management team to collaboratively develop guidelines for retaining trees of unique character to ensure that trees of significant age, condition, structure, or habitat value remain standing following harvest operations. Once adopted, these guidelines will replace the temporary age-based direction I issued regarding trees of 160 years or older as restricted from harvest as they will be more effective at meeting habitat and conservation values.”

The concise and compelling language of the interim dean’s letter shows a deliberate effort to implement substantial changes to the management of the Research Forests.  He clearly understood that his choice to commit to a collaborative processes would be a sea change in their approach to forest planning.  When asked about his interim status and whether his changes would be binding, he assured us they would be.  As acting dean, he had the full authority of his position leading the College of Forestry.

College Leaders Violate Collaborative Commitment:  Unfortunately, the current dean, Thomas DeLuca, and his associate dean, Holly Ober, have chosen to violate the 2019 collaborative commitment to forest planning in a number of important ways which I described in my email below.  I also forwarded this message to the OSU president and board of trustees (with specific questions and a request to meet with President Murthy).  Despite repeated requests over many weeks, College leaders and the trustees have yet to even acknowledge my questions about OSU’s forest planning process.  This clearly violates OSU’s core values, as well as the trustees statutory obligation to provide transparency and public accountability for the University.  Their silence and failure to honor the collaborative commitment greatly diminishes public trust in OSU’s leadership and the College of Forestry’s stewardship of these public forests. 


Email sent to Associate Dean Ober and forwarded to the OSU president and board of trustees on September 12th, 2022:

Dear Associate Dean Ober,

I’ve been meaning to share my concerns with you about OSU’s forest planning process for quite some time.  These concerns have only intensified since attending your first “listening session” on August 31st.  I’ll start by summarizing general concerns, then move on to specific issues with the listening session and your communications.
First, it was nice to see the acknowledgement of the commitment to a collaborative approach to forest planning (made by Anthony Davis back in 2019) at the start of your listening session.  Unfortunately, I’m just not seeing much evidence of collaboration in the actions taken by you and the dean thus far.  In fact, I’d say it has been much more of a unilateral or traditional approach.  It occurred to me that perhaps neither of you has really taken the time to understand what collaboration means in the context of forest planning.  I wrote about the need for collaborative planning in a blog piece summarizing decades of OSU’s mismanagement of the Research Forests.  Here’s an excerpt:
strongly encourage you and your Oregon Consensus colleagues to read both my blog piece and chapter 8 of “Ecological Forest Management” (“Resolving Forestry Conflicts through Collaboration”), by Franklin, Johnson and Johnson.  Until you really understand the College’s history and embrace a collaborative approach, you’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.  
As I’ve explained to the dean, “collaboration” is much more than holding a few “listening sessions”.  You have to start treating the public as equal partners and that means giving up a substantial measure of control.  You can’t go into this with your unilaterally-developed goals and a revenue mandate (more on that below).  Collaboration depends on trust.  Unfortunately, Research Forest managers squandered our trust through decades of dismissing our concerns, violating your management plan, and cutting old growth in 2019.  You certainly won’t gain it back by having the guy who decided to cut the old growth playing a central role in the planning process (as we saw in the first SAC meeting)!  You don’t get to pick who represents us, decide the structure of the meetings, choose the questions we get to answer, or determine the foundational goals for these public forests on a unilateral basis (as you have clearly done)!  These are all hallmarks of the “traditional approach” to forest planning.  This is not my opinion – it’s laid out clearly in the fore-mentioned, authoritative book (by OSU’s own experts).  If you’re truly committed to a collaborative process, you’re going to have to halt the current process and start from scratch.
This leads me to the “Vision, Mission, and Goals” document for OSU’s research forests (apparently finalized in January of this year, but only recently made public).  By defining these lands as actively-managed, “Working Demonstration Forest” and requiring operational revenue to come from logging, the goals lock in an industrial forestry approach at the expense of research.  The forests are simply not large enough to produce the expected revenue without substantial cutting.  I find it astonishing that College leaders would decide that the public should have no role in developing this foundational document governing these public forests.  Since OSU is defined as a “public body”, by state law, legal title to all real property of the University (including forest lands) is held in the name of the State of Oregon.  Here’s a snip of the ORS (352.025):
In other words, these forests belong to all Oregonians.  The College of Forestry is but the current steward.  Contrary to the false messages spread by generations of College leaders, you don’t “own” these forests and have a right to manage them as you, alone, see fit.  Your stewardship entails our collaborative involvement.  How can you reasonably expect to “…provide transparency, public accountability, and…operate in the best interest of the State of Oregon as a whole” without collaborating with the very public you serve?!  It is part of the democratic process and OSU’s founding principles.  It was a fundamental violation of these founding principles for the dean and his committee to develop the V,M&G without any public involvement or transparency.  If you are going to have any legitimacy or trust in the eyes of the public moving forward, you need to first acknowledge and address this foundational mistake.
I could write an entire chapter about all of the things you did wrong in unilaterally choosing your so-called “Stakeholder Advisory Committee”.  To maintain that these people and the organizations they’re connected to represent the public at large (the true stakeholders) is ludicrous.  But stepping back, what gives a handful of College leaders the right to choose who represents the public?!  The College absolutely reeks of special-interest industry funding, from the nearly $80M for the new forestry buildings to the $5M dean’s endowment to the ~14 endowed chairs (most of which come from timber donors).  You have ZERO moral authority to decide who represents us!  The fact that every group represented on the SAC has some long-standing relationship with the College imparts a fundamental bias to the process and taints the outcome.  It just doesn’t “pass the smell test”.  There are NO harsh critics of OSU’s approach to forestry on the committee.  Instead, we see a preponderance of folks with traditional timber management experience.  The results of this were clearly evident in the first SAC meeting.  I expect you and the dean had to anticipate this, as you chose them (and clearly excluded me, despite my repeated requests to serve).  It is notable that there are no forest carbon, climate change, or ecological forestry experts on either the SAC or FPC.  By making these mistakes, you again followed the traditional approach to forest planning.  You also did an enormous disservice to the citizens you serve, including, most importantly, the surrounding community (which relies on these forests for a wide range of non-timber values and services).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also briefly articulate specific concerns about the SAC process.  The meeting timing (middle of the afternoon) and lack of recording seem designed to minimize public viewing.  My guess is you’d claim these meetings don’t have to follow the Oregon Public Meeting Law, but I’m not so sure.  If the group is making recommendations (as most committees tend to do) and sending them to the Faculty Planning Committee, that would seem to constitute a “governing body” per the ORS.  Regardless of the OPML, you are clearly violating fundamental transparency principles by not recording and archiving these meetings.  You have an obligation to the public you serve to make these deliberations easy to view (both now and in the future).  Another fundamental disconnect is the lack of any public input forum for the SAC.  We have no way to contact these folks collectively to express our concerns – and yet you seem to be implying they represent our interests.  How can they do that if we are unable to contact them?!  When someone asked Mr. Odell about that in our meeting, he gave a dismissive reply (saying something about them not wanting to share their email addresses).  Come on, you can do better than that!  You absolutely need to have a way for people to email the SAC members (as a group).  It needs to be independent of OSU (as College leaders have demonstrated self-serving bias time and time again).  You also ought to accept public comments in the SAC meetings.  That’s just standard protocol for a collaborative, public process.  By failing to follow these basic tenets of public meetings, you are once again embracing the traditional approach to forest planning.
It is my understanding that the Faculty Planning Committee will meet behind closed doors.  If so, I believe this is a clear violation of the Oregon Public Meeting Law.  It certainly violates the collaborative commitment when the group deciding the fate of these public forests (for likely a decade or more to come) meets in secret.  It is also a clear step backward from the College’s “Tier 1” planning process (back in 2016-2019), when there was a public representative serving on the committee (though he was later restrained from sharing information by your meddling director).  It is also a significant step backward from the more recent Elliott State Research Forest process (where meetings were recorded and archived).  What are you so intent on hiding in these meetings?  This is not in the best interest of the State, public, or the University!  The days of closed-door meetings (where key figures of the College could intimidate other committee members in private) are over.  Transparency helps provide accountability (which is sorely lacking in the CoF).
Moving on to the “listening sessions”, I’m going to again call you out for following the “traditional approach”.  By selected the questions we were directed to address and limiting the scope of the discussion (to the forest plan), you showed just how out of touch you are with the public.  Your facilitators tried to deflect any criticism of the planning process and instead focus on input for the next forest plan.  I was told to save my comments about the process for the end of the meeting.  When I raised my hand at the end, I wasn’t called on and the meeting was promptly ended.  What was the rush?  City council, Land Board, and other meetings often go on for hours to accommodate peoples’ right to provide testimony.  By cutting us off and prohibiting criticism of the process, you showed your traditional, “command and control” approach.  Again, this is a huge disservice to the public you serve.  None of this is consistent with a “collaborative approach” to forest planning.
I’ve criticized  the format of your meeting (with one live session and two isolated zoom sessions) as a “Divide and Conquer” approach.  While I understand there are some practical limitations to handling input from a large group, your decision to follow this divided approach left many participants feeling very frustrated and isolated.  One Zoom attendee wrote:
“I felt isolated in a breakout room – we never returned to the larger group and we were denied listening to those who were in person, on location – and we all know that is where the informed dedicated voices are!”
I understand that you never intended these “listening sessions” to be a public forum (to criticize the College’s poor history of forest management).  But that’s not something you can or should control (despite what your propaganda/communications folks tell you).  That’s a key part of public collaboration.  You don’t get to decide what people say.  You are dealing with decades of frustration and anger from people who have been dismissed and ignored by generations of the College’s so-called “leaders”.  They created that legacy – and now you and the dean are perpetuating it!  You have to be flexible and adapt to the public you serve.  I know College leaders cringe at the thought of an “open mic” session or public forum where people can hurl their literal rotten tomatoes at you in front of a large group.  But that’s part of being an equal and collaborative partner (and an official in a public institution).  You have to be willing to relinquish control and deal openly with the wounds of the past.  What you’re doing now is just rubbing salt in those wounds.
I’ll end with some specific ideas and requests:
1) I found it curious to hear Mr. Odell mention at the first listening session you were considering creating an email address to accept public input – as you already have one!  In the past, community members were directed to send their questions and concerns about Research Forest issues to:  forest.input@oregonstate.edu  Were you not aware of this email account?  Why wouldn’t you use this account (that many people are already familiar with) to collect input about the new forest plan?  Please continue using the existing email account for feedback about the forest plan – and include notes about it in future communications and on your planning webpage.  I’m not sure who has access to that account, but at least for the current planning process, the Research Forest director should be removed from that account.  I would not trust him to handle the messages, as he is responsible for many of the biggest failures when it comes to your forest management.  He also has a direct financial conflict of interest, as his salary comes from logging revenue.  His history of restraint of information also means he should not play an active role in the planning process (I’ll save that for another email).
2) In the wake of the old-growth cutting of 2019, College leaders received a substantial amount of public input, most of which is highly relevant to the current forest planning process.  Please commit to incorporating all of the public feedback received after the 2019 old-growth cutting in the current planning process.  This includes ALL messages sent to forest.input@oregonstate.edu, as well as notes, emails, and other College records concerning the old-growth cutting debacle.  Also, it seems like it would be a relatively straight-forward task for your IT staff to do a broad search of the emails sent to the trustees, former president, interim and current dean, director, and communications folks concerning forestry topics. I know quite a few people who’ve sent messages questioning your forest management practices and priorities over the past few years.  These ought to be collected and shared with the SAC and FPC.  
3) Public comments from the Elliott State Research Forest (ESRF) planning process should also be presented to the SAC and FPC in some form, as the majority of comments have great relevance for OSU’s stewardship of the McDonald-Dunn.  In many ways, the current planning process is just a continuation of that previous “research forest” planning process.  The forests are different, but the fundamental concerns of the public are not (and both are essentially managed by OSU).  Oregonians are generally opposed to clearcutting, herbicide use, and the cutting of older trees.  They prioritize wildlife, recreation, carbon sequestration, wildfire resilience, and mitigation of climate change.  The Elliott process has a substantial archive of public comment that could help inform the committee members.  Will you commit to working with the OSU Elliott team to share their archive of public testimony with the SAC and FPC?
4) Your forest planning webpage still shows the old meeting info., without any mention of future listening sessions.  I’m also unable to find a schedule of the SAC or FPC meetings.  Am I missing something?  I’ve had a number of other people (including a media source) ask me for the same info., so I’m wondering what’s going on.  I’ve received no follow-up info. from any of you (College sources or OR Consensus).  I know I specifically asked the dean (back on March 1st) to be added to your distribution list.  Would you please make sure I’m on the distribution list for all planning related messages?  I have to say the lack of updated info. really reflects poorly on the University.  People need to know about these events weeks in advance.  You can’t just put out a notice in your “forest update” email and call it good.  Perhaps you should consider hiring a communication firm to assist you with these efforts…Would you please provide a schedule of all future listening sessions, as well as SAC and FPC meetings?
5) For the next listening session, I request that you:
  • provide an open forum/format (with all participants provided a 3-min. minimum time allotment to express their views to ALL meeting attendees)
  • connect in-person and Zoom participants via a large screen in the conference room
  • allow in-person participants to stand before the microphone and camera (if they wish) so others can see and hear their testimony – this is a standard format for public meetings.
  • show flexibility – do not cut the meeting off at a predetermined time or exclude criticism of the planning process.
  • solicit our feedback on the planning process – and makes changes to reflect public expectations
I’d also like to point out that three 90-minute “listening sessions” allow for only the most superficial capture of public ideas and concerns about how you should manage these forests.  Again, this is not substantive collaboration!  Have you considered having some “open-house” planning events at a “neutral” location (like the public library’s meeting room)?  You could have large-scale maps of the forest, with markers or Post-It notes for people to use to indicate specific areas of interest or concern.  If you had some knowledgeable, friendly experts (e.g. forest ecologists, grad. students, fisheries folks – anybody but your director and his “good ol’ boys”) present to answer questions and talk to people one-on-one, I think it would be much more effective.  You should also have a comprehensive, on-line survey and consider sending a post-card about it to specific neighborhoods (e.g. Soap Creek, Oak Creek, Timberhill, Vineyard Mtn.) – or even all Corvallis residences.  The way you’re going about this tells us you don’t really want to know what we think.  You’ll need to think creatively and change course if you’re going to rebuild public trust.
6) Please let me know how people can contact the SAC and FPC members.  You should have a single, non-OSU email account for each group.  I’d like to be able to forward a copy of this message to committee members with my introduction.  They need to be made aware of these concerns.
I sincerely hope you will consider changing your current approach to forest planning.  Your rigid adherence to the “traditional approach” is out of step with our times and is clearly diminishing public trust.  We expect and deserve much better than this.
Doug Pollock (founder, Friends of OSU Old Growth – www.friendsofosuoldgrowth.org)
The 2019 old-growth clearcut demonstrated OSU’s traditional approach to forest management. The Northwest Forest Plan essentially stopped the cutting of old growth on federal lands 23 years prior to this destruction of ancient forest under OSU’s stewardship.