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The Outlaw

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 21, 2014

"Adaptation isn't only about responding to risk. It's also about taking advantage of opportunity." --George McKinley

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George McKinley is a longtime friend and partner of Sustainable Northwest, and he's doing his part to counteract the effects of climate change. In 2012 we profiled George in the series The Cowboy, the Outlaw, and the Kid. The following is an adaptation of his story.

George McKinley lives at a crossroads. His home is in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwestern Oregon, where the Klamath, Siskiyou, and Cascade mountain ranges intersect. President Clinton called these lands 'an ecological wonder' and established the monument to preserve their biological diversity.

The surrounding region's natural beauty provides economic and social benefits to its residents. However, like much of the West, troubling conditions exist here that threaten the health of the land and the livelihood of the people. Industrial clear cuts and monocultures of ponderosa pine have hindered land productivity and diminished biological diversity. Long-term fire suppression has heightened the risk of extreme wildfire in the region. In recent years tree mortality rates have increased - a growing indicator that forest health is in decline.

But George McKinley, a private forest landowner and the organizer of a public lands restoration group, has not let these conditions dismay him.

He has taken simple but impactful steps to rehabilitate his land. Fuel reduction, forest thinning, oak habitat restoration, and tree planting are some of the measures George has taken to restore the character of the landscape and reduce competition for water and soil nutrients - resources that are predicted to be affected by climate change in the near future.

At 53 years of age with wild black hair, sunglasses, and a skateboard hat, George looks like a motorcycle rebel. This is a man with an advanced degree in Religious Studies who owns 600 acres of treasured forest land, and was named the 2008 Jackson County tree farmer of the year. He represents a new generation of landowners.

A Market for the Future

Using one of the first Conservation Innovation Grants from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), George developed a project that integrates forest needs with economic return. Where trees were dense and too close together, NRCS crews have thinned out small diameter material to retain and encourage the growth of larger trees that capture more carbon. Every ten years, thinning will occur to promote natural regeneration. George will also plant a diverse mix of tree species to better reflect the historical composition of the landscape.

By promoting the growth of larger trees and harvesting on a longer rotation, the amount of carbon sequestered in their limbs and trunks will offset 242,000 miles of car travel per year for the next 20 years. Additional benefits include improved wildlife habitat, reduced risk of fire, and enhanced stream and water flow.

Despite the absence of a national climate change policy or mandatory carbon markets, George and other landowners may have several opportunities to promote carbon sequestration and receive income from voluntary purchasers. In fact, George has already received interest from a local business looking to purchase credits to offset its carbon emissions.

Should carbon markets become regulated by state or national policy in the future, they could bring supplemental revenues to private landowners like George McKinley. With declining timber prices and a loss of regional mill infrastructure, it has become even more imperative that these landowners explore other sources of income to offset the costs of caring for their land.

Neighbors in Forest Stewardship

Since 2005, George has been dedicated to the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative. The group consists of foresters, loggers, environmentalists, and interested community members who are pursuing an alternative path for management of federal lands in the Rogue Basin of southwestern Oregon. The collaborative has achieved national recognition for its projects, which have removed small diameter trees from dense stands in the Rogue Basin, protected large trees and endangered species habitat, produced wood for local mills, and created jobs.

Much of the group's success can be attributed to its collaboration with multiple agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service. "What affects you affects your neighbor, and the health of the region's landscape is the ultimate shared relationship," George says. Changes on the landscape don't discriminate based on land ownership. He believes that individuals with different perspectives working together to achieve shared goals have an impact much greater than disconnected efforts. As a result, the collaborative has been able to achieve large-scale outcomes working with these agencies.

Looking ahead

Like southwestern Oregon, our nation stands at a crossroads about how we value our natural resources. Significant challenges face the health and management of the lands in the western U.S., and this work will become more complex due to the anticipated effects of climate change and other stressors in coming years. Overcoming these obstacles will require that we erase the lines in the sand of politics and land ownership, and realize that landscapes are interconnected and voices from all levels must collaborate to pursue shared benefit. People like George are the first responders to economic and ecological transformation, and their actions will have profound impacts on the food, fiber, water, air, and other resources that we all depend on. Making sustainable choices for the land and all those who depend on it is George McKinley's cause, and supporting his work and others like it is a worthwhile investment in our collective future.

Read George's full story here.