Summer is fast approaching, and something is weighing heavily on the minds of ecologists, foresters, wildfire experts and the public alike: wildfires.
Locally, some environmentalists argue the Bureau of Land Management and Seneca Jones Timber Company will put local communities at risk if they move forward with their proposed Pedal Power timber sale.
The timber sale is adjacent to Willamalane’s Thurston Hills Natural Area and, as Seneca says in a press release, in “close proximity to Springfield.”
With global climate change contributing to longer, hotter and drier summers, Oregon’s forests are in increasing danger from fire and other natural disasters. Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology (FUSEE) say that, despite these dangers, land management authorities are not only failing to protect Oregon’s greatest natural assets but are actively degrading them in pursuit of profit.
A 2015 analysis conducted by the Center for Sustainable Economy concluded that as of that year Oregon lost more than 500,000 acres of forest cover in the western portion of the state alone. The study also estimated that more than 4 million acres of Oregon’s forests were converted to industrial tree plantations — a number that continues to grow.
Ecologists and wildfire experts largely agree that current logging practices increase fire danger. For example, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studied Montana’s 2003 Cooney Ridge fire, concluding that the vast majority of forestlands that saw severe burning were private industrial forests, while unlogged public lands burned less severely.
Other studies have reached similar conclusions: Cutting large swaths of mature forest and replacing them with young, even-aged plantations increase the risk of catastrophic wildfire. While there are various terms used for such cuts — clearcut, regeneration harvest, seed tree harvest, etc. — the effect is the same.
According to Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of FUSEE, if the BLM plan goes through and the land is logged, by the agency’s own admission the risk of fire in the area will be increased for the next 40 to 50 years. Yet BLM and Seneca say the risk is acceptable.
Ingalsbee questions the wisdom of creating any fire hazard, especially in an area so close to dozens of homes, and he says the way the BLM diminishes risk by characterizing it as a very small area in the grander scope is more than a bit spurious.
He adds that while the area may be small, because of the way wildfires quickly spread, as well as the timber sale’s proximity to semi-urban and urban areas, the potential for devastation is great.
Because of these and other dangers, Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands specifically cite the risk of wildfire in their pending lawsuit against the BLM, and in their complaint argue that the agency violates its own policy by failing to fully consider fire hazards and risks.
BLM spokesperson Jennifer Velez declined to comment, citing policy regarding comments on pending litigation.
But Casey Roscoe, vice president of public relations for Seneca Jones — the company awarded the $1.09-million logging contract — says that “people keep saying clearcutting, but the BLM hasn’t done a clearcut in over two decades.” She adds, “We’re not talking about a 240-acre clearcut. We’re talking about something that’s much more boutique.”
Seneca says the BLM’s plan is “dynamic” and “includes areas of riparian reserve around streams, late-successional reserve around an older stand, dozens of wildlife trees left throughout the harvest and an untouched buffer area near a neighboring property.”
The timber company also says, once the logging is complete in 2021, the BLM, Willamalane, Disciples of Dirt and other organizations will create new trails through the “dynamic landscape.”
Roscoe, who with her husband also owns the Eugene restaurant Veg Salad Craft, says the restaurant is committed to sustainability, sourcing locally when possible, and she ties those efforts to Seneca Jones’ business and forestry practices. Roscoe says Seneca operates sustainably by definition, citing the fact that Seneca replants more trees than it harvests.
That definition, however, is overly narrow, according to Oregon Wild’s Doug Heiken.
Heiken argues that any definition of sustainability should encompass the overall health of an ecosystem. Because regeneration harvesting degrades the environment, impacting everything from watersheds and wildlife habitat to increasing wildfire risk and contributing to climate change, BLM and Seneca’s plan is anything but sustainable, he says.
Roscoe says conversations she’s had show support and even excitement about the Pedal Power sale.
Ingalsbee, however, recently cohosted a public forum with Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands, which was attended by more than 70 area residents, many of whom expressed deep concern, especially over wildfire risks.