Thurston Hills is home to one of the few trails in the nearby area where you can barrel down at high speeds on a mountain bike without worrying about hikers and other pedestrian traffic. But now the only thing moving as fast as a biker shredding a trail is the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to OK logging at its property next to the Springfield trail system.
Environmental groups and neighbors are concerned about the BLM’s decision to allow Seneca Jones Timber to log the area because of the fire risk. The BLM and Seneca say the project will result in a better recreational area — although the federal agency did offer an option where it builds additional trail systems without the logging.
On May 18, the BLM announced it would continue with the timber sale at its property near Thurston Hills, just outside Springfield. The announcement came after the agency lost a case against Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands last year. The ruling was that the BLM had to issue a revised environmental assessment report.
“But it remains to be seen whether they’ve actually fixed those mistakes,” says Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, adding that further legal action is likely.
The process is moving forward quickly because the BLM marks activities like processing applications for logging operations and timber sales as a critical function during a pandemic, according to documents obtained by Eugene Weekly.
The timber harvest outside of Thurston Hills is also known as Pedal Power. When the BLM initially introduced its timber harvest plan in 2017, it upset Springfield, one of the most pro-timber cities in Oregon. So the city of Springfield and Willamalane wrote a letter of protest to the federal agency.
The agency revised its plans. It will downsize the harvest from 150 to 92 acres and will add 8.5 miles to the trail system there, Kenny Weigrandt, community engagement program manager at Willamalane Park and Recreation District, tells EW in an email.
The BLM’s harvest plan includes harvesting trees up to Willamalane and BLM’s shared property line. Weigrandt says that a 150 to 200-foot vegetative buffer will be maintained between the harvested area and the Thurston Hills’ trails.
In a September 2019 ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael McShane found that the BLM did not adequately analyze or publicly disclose the fire hazards near the Pedal Power project, which deprived the public of meaningful participation.
McShane said the BLM did not include a report from its fuels specialist who reported that cutting down mature trees and replanting “early successional” trees would change the fire hazard from low to moderate to high. The BLM even hid the fuels specialist’s identity so the report would be hidden from public records.
The court ruling adds that this means the area could have a high fire risk for the five to 20 years after replanting new trees. In response to potential questions from the public, the BLM’s fuels specialist said the agency would analyze the fire hazards further.
But it never did, and the BLM even cut the fuels specialist’s report from 18 pages to a single sentence in its 2018 Environmental Assessment report, according to McShane’s ruling.
A spokesperson for BLM says the agency met the concerns of Judge McShane.
On Feb. 4, the BLM released a new environmental assessment. The 103-page report covered more of the fire hazards posed by the project and its alternatives.
And logging the area and the associated fire risk is what concerns many residents in the Thurston neighborhood.
Ronna Frank, a Thurston resident, tells EW that she and other neighbors are working with the city of Springfield to ensure their properties are maintained to avoid fire risks.
“We’re not activists,” Frank says. “We’re property owners who don’t want their properties to burn down.”
Seneca purchased the Thurston timber for about $1 million. The company’s spokesperson, Casey Roscoe, says Pedal Power isn’t technically a “clearcut” and that environmental groups like Cascadia Wildlands are misusing that word.
But Cady says Thurston Hills will be a clearcut. He says in regenerative planting, the BLM leaves about four to six mature trees per acre and plants “spindly” trees that the wind knocks over because there isn’t a canopy of trees protecting it.
“All of those trees they’re supposed to retain, they’re bunching around the mountain biking trail,” he says. “There’s going to be nothing. They’re going to bulldozer everything.”
The BLM said in its Feb. 4 environmental assessment report that it plans to re-harvest the timber it successfully grows again in 10 to 20 years, which Cady sums up as turning the area into a “perpetual timber plantation.”
Weigrandt and Roscoe both say they are excited for the recreational result of the logging project.
“This is a place that has never been accessed before,” Roscoe says. “It will give us something that’s so special, that’s such a jewel.”
She says the project is being held up by Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands because the two nonprofits are creating a “false narrative” around Pedal Power.
Murray McLeod, a resident of the Thurston neighborhood, counters Roscoe, saying, “A narrative can be a statement of facts.” McLeod adds that he and his neighbors are active on the social media website NextDoor, and a number of neighbors want to see Pedal Power die.
Out of the four proposals the BLM explored in its Feb. 4 environmental assessment report, one alternative would result in a trail system without a timber harvest. The report says the cost to build the trails would be about $343,275, but wouldn’t result in timber-related revenue for the agency.
In the report, the BLM says that alternative would offer about 20 miles of a combined trail system, providing a “much-needed recreational opportunity” for the Eugene-Springfield area, that would offer high quality mountain biking and hiking experiences into the future.
But a BLM spokesperson says the purpose of the Pedal Power project is to create a recreational trail system and sell timber. The agency is required by law to harvest a certain amount of timber per year.
McLeod says the trail-only alternative would have been an acceptable option. But for now, the recreational future of the Thurston area will be what McLeod calls “an overgrown Christmas tree farm.”
“Even though this project is supposed to build new mountain biking trails, it’s not worth the hassle and reduced beauty of the area,” he says. “Exchanging these older growth forests with these regenerative forests, it’s not a tit for tat.”
The 15-day period to submit a protest ends Tuesday, June 2. The BLM is only accepting protests via mail or hand delivery via appointments. Call 541-683-6600 to make an appointment.