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In push to thin forests to prevent wildfire, concerns grow over loss of old growth

It was a mountain biker on a trail in Bend in 2022 who first spotted the pod of large old Ponderosa pines marked for cutting. The biker alerted local environmental groups, including the Bend office of the nonprofit Oregon Wild, where Erik Fernandez works as a wilderness program manager.

Fernandez went out to photograph the trees in the Deschutes National Forest, some of which he and others figured were more than 80 years old after measuring their circumference. More than a dozen were marked with blue spray paint – a universal sign-on federal lands meaning “cut.”

The trees were among a stand of pines and other trees slated to be “thinned” as part of a wildfire prevention strategy overseen by the U.S. Forest Service. Thinning stretches of forest to eliminate some smaller trees and debris that could dry out and catch or fuel fires is controversial among wildfire scientists and conservationists. Many agree it can be helpful if done before a prescribed burn – a low-intensity fire started across the forest floor to spur soil health and reduce competition among plant and tree species. It can also be helpful to create buffers around infrastructure and areas near communities where flames could easily jump, called “fuel breaks.” But it’s less helpful in areas where vegetation can grow back quickly or in remote areas where people and infrastructure are not protected.

The Forest Service often hires timber companies to help with the thinning, which the agency lacks the staff and resources to undertake alone. In turn, timber companies get access to some marketable timber.

But a growing number of environmentalists say federal agencies in charge of 60% of forested acres in Oregon are increasingly allowing timber companies to log old and mature trees within those thinning projects – the trees that are best equipped to withstand wildfires. Those trees are also among the best resources for sequestering climate-warming greenhouse gases creating increased wildfire risk in the region and globally.

“Looking into the future, if we keep cutting the big trees, it’s self-defeating,” Fernandez said.

Responding with protest

A coalition of environmental groups called the Pacific Northwest Forest Climate Alliance is planning to protest old-growth logging on public lands in front of the Forest Service’s Portland office Thursday afternoon. Member Meg Ward, also co-founder of the Eugene-based nonprofit Breach Collective, said it is part of a growing movement of opposition to mature and old-growth logging across the region.

In southern Oregon, environmentalists calling themselves the Pacific Northwest Forest Defense recently overturned the sale of one forest thinning project near Grants Pass by sitting in an old-growth tree that was marked to be cut. Last week members began another protest up in the trees against what’s called the Rogue Gold project, between Grants Pass and Medford, which involves thinning in some forested areas that are in reserve to develop into old-growth habitat. The Bureau of Land Management is managing that project.

“Cutting down trees does not make forests more resilient to fire, as the Bureau of Land Management wants us to believe, but has the opposite effect – increasing wildfire risk, endangering our communities, and driving the climate crisis,” said Sam Shields, an organizer with the forest defense, in a news release.

Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management allow logging old and mature trees in thinning and wildfire prevention projects if such trees stand in the way of a road that needs to be built for a project, if the old trees are in fuel break areas or if they deem the trees detrimental to regeneration projects – projects meant to restore forests and create ecosystems that would have existed before more than a century of industrial logging that was followed by replanting tightly packed Douglas fir trees. Federal forest management plans that cover much of the state, including the Northwest Forest Plan and the Eastside Screens, offer flexibility for some old growth to be cut in the process of thinning and wildfire prevention work.

“The Forest Service maintains that the greatest threat to old growth is not logging, but wildfire, which is what they are trying to prevent through thinning,” Catherine Caruso, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.

In general, the Bureau of Land Management does not allow trees with a diameter greater than 36 inches to be cut, Sarah Bennett, an agency spokesperson, previously told the Capital Chronicle. Caruso, of the Forest Service, said Wednesday that any further questions about the Forest Service’s allowance for logging and old growth have to go through channels to the national office of the agency for vetting because the Biden administration is in the middle of crafting new policy on old-growth logging.

In 2022, the president issued an executive order to end old-growth logging on federal lands by 2025 and earlier this year, announced a plan to amend all national forest management plans to ban commercial old-growth logging.

Why thin the forest?

Not all scientists agree that forest thinning is a good idea writ large. Former U.S. Forest Service scientist Jack Cohen has argued in several research papers that thinning is futile in many types of forests and in places distant from communities that could be harmed. This is because in many climates, forest vegetation regrows fast and building roads to thinning sites invites more fire risk from humans. Thinning can also create dry conditions that favor fire.

Former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Jim Furnish, has become outspoken about not using “vegetation management” to spur logging. Most scientists agree any forest thinning should be in strategic areas to protect people and infrastructure and be followed by prescribed burning, but such burning is rare in many areas where federal agencies undertake thinning.

“We’re actively engaged on multiple fronts in expanding the use of prescribed fire on forests,” said Caruso of the Forest Service in an email. “But while sometimes we can follow thinning with fire in short order, in other cases there are barriers.”

The benefits of forest thinning to prevent wildfire start and stop at protecting communities close to forests and to protect critical habitat for Fernandez and Oregon Wild. They’ve been part of projects in the past where they agreed it was beneficial to thin and where large old trees were not cut.

“There is a sweet spot,” Fernandez said. Oregon Wild previously partnered with the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and the Forest Service to undertake thinning near an area near Bend called Black Butte.

“That was thinning the small trees, protecting the big trees, doing prescribed fire, protecting important meadows and riparian areas, and it was great,” he said.

The challenges, Fernandez said, are the financial incentives timber companies need to agree to do the thinning for the Forest Service and targets set by Congress for logging on public lands. The sale of thinning projects to timber companies helps financially support the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Thousands of the more than 15,000 acres of forest thinning and restoration projects that the Forest Service alone is planning across the Deschutes, Mount Hood, and Umpqua National Forests will be undertaken by timber companies as “commercial thinning,” according to planning documents. Hundreds of acres are in areas designated “late successional reserves,” meaning areas that are being managed to one day become mature and old-growth forests. These areas include some of the oldest trees in Oregon’s forests.

Some project plans include specific protections for old-growth trees, while others do not have clear specifications about the size of the trees that can be taken. Caruso of the Forest Service said there are often differences between what is included in an approved project plan and what happens on the ground due to discoveries, litigation, and other factors.

Pulling the fire alarm

After Fernandez saw the old-growth slated to be cut near the bike trail in Bend, he raised alarms with the Forest Service and the Bend City Council. But the Forest Service would not change course. The trees were cut a few months after the discovery. In response, the city council wrote a letter to the Forest Service urging it to protect large old-growth trees and to keep them out of any logging and thinning plans.

A few years before that, Fernandez himself found several old-growth trees slated to be cut just off of the Cascade Lakes Highway between Bend and Mt. Bachelor. Trees that appeared to be 200 or more years old were marked with the tell-tale blue spray paint. That time, the Forest Service took a different approach. He got officials to come visit the site with him 48 hours before, it turns out, the trees were scheduled to be cut. The Forest Service agreed they had been mismarked, and that they should not be cut.

“They were like: ‘We’re gonna go get the paint cans and fix this, because this was not supposed to happen,’” Fernandez recalled. They painted orange stripes, meaning “do not cut” over the blue paint wrongfully applied. “But if I had not randomly been out there, then a bunch of some of the last few old-growth trees would have been gone,” he said.

Correction: Fernandez of Oregon Wild discovered old-growth slated to be cut near Cascade Lakes Highway before, not after, the discovery by a Bend mountain biker of more old-growth slated to be cut in the Deschutes National Forest.

Reporting for this story was made possible with a fellowship from the nonprofit Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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