MEDFORD, Oregon — A federal judge has chopped a deep undercut into plans to salvage-log old-growth timber in the upper Rogue River drainage of southern Oregon. Some say the decision could have a domino effect on proposed timber sales in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest. Others aren’t so sure.
Calling the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s decision to salvage the timber "arbitrary, capricious and not otherwise in accordance with law," U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene issued a permanent injunction for the Flaming Rock and Smoke Gobbler timber sales on Nov. 8. The sales had called for logging some 17 million board-feet on about 12,000 acres of the BLM’s Medford District, in an area that had been burned by the 2002 Timbered Rock Fire. That would be enough timber to build more than 1,000 2,000-square-foot houses.
Plaintiffs had charged that the salvage plans violated the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan: Both sales are in late-successional reserves, which are supposed to be managed to protect and enhance old-growth forest ecosystems, preserving habitat for species such as salmon and spotted owls (HCN, 9/27/04: Racetrack).
BLM officials responded that salvage was planned for only about 8 percent of the burned land, and that it would leave standing about 95 percent of all trees, both dead and green, within the burned area. But Aiken agreed with environmentalists that the BLM must protect the big old-growth snags to provide wildlife habitat. She said the agency cannot cut timber in the name of research when similar opportunities exist outside late-successional reserves, that it cannot log on areas it knows will be difficult to regenerate, and that it must look at the cumulative effects of new roads and the impact of salvage logging on an adjacent 6,000 acres of Boise Corp. land.
"The BLM’s single-minded focus on old-growth logging came back to bite them," says George Sexton, conservation director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, one of the five environmental groups that brought the lawsuit.
The BLM is deciding whether to appeal Aiken’s ruling, says Lance Nimmo, the agency’s Butte Falls resource area manager. "Even if we appeal, it will take a good year-plus to get it resolved," he says, adding that "since all the timber we’re talking about is dead, it’s deteriorating constantly." The commercial value of the timber is expected to decline by 17 percent to 20 percent from now until next spring.
Over at the Forest Service, officials are following the case closely, says Judy McHugh, spokeswoman for the Biscuit Fire Salvage Project. The Biscuit Fire, like the Timbered Rock Fire, was sparked by lightning in the summer of 2002. It grew to roughly half a million acres, largely in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, and became the biggest wildfire in the nation that year.
The agency has proposed salvaging some 370 million board-feet of timber on about 19,000 acres. But roughly 8,000 acres of the sales are in late successional reserves, and several of those sales already face litigation (HCN, 12/22/03: Massive logging plan shakes Northwest). Nimmo, at the BLM, says Aiken’s decision could impact the Biscuit sales: "A lot of the issues are the same."
But Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, says it’s premature to declare old-growth logging dead and down because of one judge’s decision.
"It’s time for Congress to step back and evaluate what we do after we have one of these catastrophic events," West says. "We have to decide whether we are going to restore these areas or not. Are we going to leave them to rot?"
That’s exactly what many ecologists say the forest needs. "With respect to salvage logging, it’s the most damaging activity you can do after a fire," says Dominick DellaSala, a forest ecologist in charge of the World Wildlife Fund’s program in southern Oregon. DellaSala, whose post-fire ecology research includes the 1988 Yellowstone fires, explains that old-growth trees, including large dead trees, create vital habitat for northern spotted owls and other species.
"There is a consensus in the scientific community (that) we ought to be protecting old-growth forests, that there is no ecological reason to log in those areas," he says. "But it’s been real tough for the public to grasp the ecological value of dead trees."
He hopes Judge Aiken’s decision will change that attitude. A review of the spotted owl released by the federal government in late November found that the birds are at greater risk now than they were in 1990. While logging in the bird’s habitat has decreased, new threats, such as aggressive barred owls, forest fires and diseases that could kill both birds and the trees they live in, are on the rise.
The author reports for the Medford Mail Tribune.
George Sexton with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, 541-488-5789
Chris West with the American Forest Resource Council, 503-222-9505