In Oregon, tension over coho and trees

  • China Left timber sale

    Diane Sylvain
  • A man protests jailing of women arrested

    Timothy Bullard/Grants Pass Daily Courier
 

When federal biologists listed coho salmon under the Endangered Species Act in early June, logging protesters staking out the China Left timber sale in Oregon's Siskiyou National Forest hoped their work was done. They were disappointed.

The day of the listing, which protects threatened coho in streams along the Oregon-California border, forest supervisor Mike Lunn did halt the logging. But only a week later the saws were back in action. A team of federal biologists approved logging on half of China Left's 16 logging units, located in southwestern Oregon.

Now, activists fear much of the 630-acre sale could be cut by summer's end. "They are still doing high-elevation clear-cuts and going right through creek beds when fish are spawning," says Debbie Lukas, spokeswoman for the environmental group, Coalition for China Left. "It's a really bad sale."

Rough & Ready Lumber Co., which has been logging the sale for two years, hopes to harvest 12.7 million board-feet of timber, enough to build 900 homes.

Lukas says the coalition, a partnership of Earth First!, Siskiyou Forest Defenders, Witness Against Lawless Logging, and Pacifists for Ancient Forests, is preparing for a strenuous summer in the forest, following an already tense spring. In April, more than 100 protesters, working in teams of five to 20, chained themselves to logging equipment, formed human rings around trees and lay across roads as others videotaped them.

"They're an extremely ingenious group," says forest supervisor Lunn.

In the last two months, police and Forest Service security officers arrested 27 protesters, charging five with felony assault, inciting to riot, and disorderly conduct. The coalition has volunteer legal help to fight the charges, which Lukas, who faces a disorderly conduct charge for sitting down in front of a logging truck, calls "ridiculous."

Lukas says officers used unnecessary force against protesters, sometimes arresting people as they offered water to comrades chained to equipment. One protester, Tim Ream, conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Eugene chapter, has accused the Forest Service of condoning violence. He says a logger smashed his camera and beat him in early June, while agency officials looked on.

National forest staff were in the area, Mike Lunn says, but none saw the incident. The agency is investigating. Rough & Ready spokeswoman Jennifer Phillippi says protesters provoked loggers, who were working late each day to stay on schedule. "Our guys were verbally assaulted for days," she says. "The loggers showed incredible restraint."

Logging as treatment

The China Left sale - so named because it's near a former Chinese miners' settlement on Sucker Creek's left bank - has inspired one of the year's hottest timber protests. The sale, activists argue, embodies what's wrong with President Clinton's 1993 Northwest forest plan, which had designated the Sucker Creek drainage as a "key watershed" for its coho and steelhead salmon runs. Critics say the plan includes loopholes that allow logging in ecologically sensitive areas, particularly in forests under the plan's "late successional reserve" category.

What this criticism translates to in the Siskiyou National Forest is anger and confusion. Environmentalists hear Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck talk publicly about preserving "ecosystem health," and they look at logging at China Left, just after the coho listing, and wonder what he means. It is as if there are two forests: a paper forest analyzed and parceled out for logging, protection and improvement in documents such as Clinton's forest plan, and then the second forest of trees, logging units, buzz saws, and protesters-the reality of China Left.

"You've got the high end talking at the top of the Forest Service," says Marty Bergoffen of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, an environmental advocacy group in Grants Pass, Ore., "and you've got the low end at China Left, where they are cutting old-growth trees and dumping sediment into salmon streams."

But the Forest Service says it is managing China Left for preservation of old-growth forest and salmon habitat. The agency uses the word "treatment." Twelve of China Left's 16 units are reserve forests of older Douglas fir, where loggers salvage downed timber and thin standing trees to protect forest health. Loggers are banned from only five of the reserve units while biologists study coho habitat. The remaining units - most of which have already been cut - are classified under the Clinton plan as lands open to clear-cut logging.

What the thinning process leaves in the older forests, says Bob Ettner, natural resources staff officer for the Siskiyou National Forest, is more room for trees to grow. "And there's a lot less possibility for fire," he adds. Agency officials insist that each forest grouping under the president's plan is based on thorough scientific study, and the sensitive ecology of an older forest will be protected.

But Debbie Lukas points out that logging set for China Left is on high, steep slopes above Sucker Creek, where the soil is already unstable from old clear-cuts. More logging, she says, will connect the clear-cuts and produce more soil instability, doubly threatening salmon habitat in a drainage already hard hit by this past winter's mud slides. Lukas says more science is needed to measure the threat logging poses to wildlife habitat, especially salmon.

Agency officials agree with Lukas that logging contributes to soil instability in forests. But Ettner says that many of the slides that hit Sucker Creek came out of unlogged roadless areas, not clear-cuts. In places, Ettner concedes, the landslides "rearranged" salmon habitat, which will drastically cut this year's population of new coho. But there's a positive side: The slides have created new spawning beds that will produce a "spike" in the salmon population in three years. "We lose some this time," he explains, "but we gain it back later."

Still, environmental activists say the situation at China Left is more complex. The government, they argue, is not considering the whole ecology of a region that encompasses the Klamath and Siskiyou national forests, whose boundary meets at the Oregon-California border.

The World Wildlife Fund, a Washington, D.C., environmental organization, this year gave a group of biologists from around the world free access to scientific databases, and asked them to assess 200 of the world's most diverse "eco-regions." The biologists working on North America ranked the Klamath-Siskiyou area third among temperate, coniferous forests for richness of plant and wildlife species, says Dominick DellaSala, director of the fund's U.S. Forest Conservation Program. But logging and mining have also made the area the world's "second most endangered" ecologically sensitive region. "The remaining intact habitat," he says, "is restricted to isolated fragments." DellaSala fears that without more controls on human activity, the area will be irreversibly harmed.

That's unlikely, argues Ettner, who says that under Clinton's Forest Plan, 93 percent of the Siskiyou National Forest, is "fairly" restricted to logging and mining. This means the agency manages 7 percent of the forest for timber, while the rest is in reserve where only treatment logging is done. The World Wildlife Fund's opinion is, he says, "a value call, not a science call."

In the meantime, as opinions fly, federal biologists are still assessing coho habitat at China Left, the loggers are working with impunity and the protesters are standing by. Debbie Lukas insists that continued logging after the coho listing has not hurt morale among activists. The goal for the summer, she adds, is "to hold (loggers) off."

* Peter Chilson, HCN associate editor