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The Forest for the Trees

Timber sale near McKenzie Bridge shows the many faces of forest management debate

Across a lush brook with tumbling miniature waterfalls and past about a quarter mile of trail-less forest there’s a hand painted canvas sign in a large Douglas fir tree that reads: “Logging cancelled due to climate emergency!”

In this section of 100-plus foot trees, within earshot of the trucks rumbling through McKenzie Bridge on Highway 126, the Cascadia Forest Defenders are tree sitting to protest the Goose timber sale.

Since the Goose Project was proposed in 2009 there has been a contentious debate over how to manage the section of public timberlands. After years of back and forth, logging and road building is underway and the Forest Defenders are up in the canopy, placing themselves as the last line of defense in the stand they now occupy. 

Viewpoints on how to manage the Goose sale are indicative of the ongoing struggle among timber companies, public lands managers like the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), environmental advocacy groups that focus their efforts in the courtroom and direct action protesters like the Forest Defenders.

Goose is in the Willamette National Forest and encompasses nearly 2,500 acres of planned timber harvest. In 2012, nonprofit environmental advocacy groups Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center, filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service for not adequately considering the environmental impacts of the timber sale. 

Primary objections to the sale were the effect of logging near streams on water quality and fish habitat; the impact on northern spotted owl habitat; and the effects of logging and road building on the nearby Lookout Mountain Potential Wilderness Area. 

In a 2013 judgment celebrated by the environmental groups, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken ordered the USFS to produce an Environmental Impact Statement before the Goose Project could be logged.

Following the 2013 decision, the USFS went through with the mandated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that began in April of 2014 and lasted more than a year. As part of the process, the USFS hosted a half-dozen public meetings in the McKenzie Bridge area, gave a tour of some of the proposed logging sites and received about 700 letters of public comments.

USFS forester Shadie Nimer and planner Dean Schlichting both say they were satisfied with the process and surprised that there was a tree sit happening. “A lot went into the planning,” Nimer says. “We collaborated to get the concerns people had with the sale.” 

“People feel like more a part of it and are appreciative of being in the loop,” Nimer says. “A lot of people were okay once they got the details.”

One of the qualities that the Forest Service emphasizes as a benefit is that logging will open up the forest canopy and provide more forage for grazers like elk. Schlichting notes that there are a lot of open spaces from clearcuts on private timber lands, but says the habitat created by the Goose Project will be higher quality because the land will be able to regenerate naturally — unlike private timberlands which are practically mandated by the Oregon Forest Practices Act to use herbicides to promote faster growing plantations.

According to Nimer and Schlichting, there is already some helicopter-based logging underway and road clearing and building by the timber companies will be the majority of the activity on the Goose sale this summer. 

Regarding the protesters, Schlichting says, “They have the right to protest and it’s our job that they keep that right and stay safe.”

Nick Cady, the legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, says that while the group isn’t pleased with all of the details of the Goose sale, the organization has gone “as far as you can push this issue” in terms of legal remedies. 

In the revised EIS, some of the concerns raised by Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, especially with regard to logging near waterways, were at least partially addressed. Cady says that they would have liked to see more protections for spotted owls and salmon habitat, but wouldn’t it be wise to challenge the EIS.

“That’s one of the balances of doing timber sale law, you have to wait for ideal facts to bring cases,” Cady says, adding that losing a case could set a bad precedent that could hamper future legal challenges to similar timber sales.

For activists protesting Goose, the arguments made by the Forest Service and timber companies don’t add up. Shannon Wilson, who says he has been participating in direct action protests against logging for more than 20 years, says, “There’s no ecological or economic reason.”

“It’s my home and I’m not going to let someone destroy it before my eyes if I can help it,” Wilson says. He also points out that creeks and springs throughout the timber sale flow into the McKenzie River, the source of Eugene’s drinking water.

According to DB, a native Eugenean using his “forest name” during the protest, “there shouldn’t be any logging on public lands, but the sad thing is they’re mandated to do it.” 

EW spoke with DB atop the tree sit where he is protesting Goose.

Andy Geissler, the field forester for the American Forest Resource Council, says that even though public lands produce less timber than private lands in Oregon, they are still critically important for the industry. “These public lands are multi-use,” Geissler says, “the land we all own should be providing for all of us.”

The American Forest Resource Council is an industry group that represents timber purchasers on federal lands. 

Geissler points to a growing demand for wood products and innovations including cross-laminated timber as important reasons for public lands to continue producing timber for logging companies. “We believe wood is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly product out there,” Geissler says.

Activists argue that because these lands are public they should not be sold and are often sold below market value. “It’s corporate welfare.” DB says, “They’re losing public money on these sales.” 

But, according to Geissler, the true cost of logging public lands is far more than the final price tag paid to the Forest Service. He cites the danger of facing lawsuits on public lands and cutting restrictions the USFS puts in place to protect wildlife as additional burdens placed on buyers of public timber sales. “There’s a lot of unknowns and an increased level of risk between buying public versus private lands,” Geissler says. 

Geissler adds that the question he would like to ask the tree sitters is what alternatives they have to meet the needs for timber and construction materials demand. “It’s easy to say no, but what’s the solution then,” Geissler says.

For activists like DB, the solution is simple: look elsewhere for timber and stop logging public lands. DB says he would like to see public forests preserved them for their ecological value and carbon sequestration potential. 

 “With the threats of climate change we can’t leave it to politicians and corporations,” DB says. “There clearly has to be people showing initiative, and close to home is a good place to start.”