Deep in the Willamette National Forest, several miles south of Oakridge, 6,800 acres of prime Douglas fir and mixed conifer stands have been identified for logging and habitat restoration in a new proposal by the U.S. Forest Service.
Several environmental groups, including Oregon Wild, are leery about the proposal to log and sell more than 45-million board feet from the region, while the Forest Service and Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative (SWFC) say the logging could help restore some of the native habitat.
Seneca Timber owns most of the forestland bordering the proposed logging region.
The Forest Service and the SWFC say this particular patch of forest in the Youngs Rock Rigdon region hasn’t seen a serious forest fire in more than 100 years because the Forest Service puts them out. The lack of fire is causing some tree species such as Douglas fir to grow too quickly and choke out other native tree species such as ponderosa pine and Oregon white oak.
This, the Forest Service says, legitimizes new thinning of trees and building new logging roads in the forest to weed out the Douglas fir.
Oregon Wild and Cascadia Forest Defenders have responded with sharp questions about the Youngs Rock Rigdon proposal, which contains many old-growth tree stands.
“While we support the idea of restoring legacy pine and oak trees and habitat, we think this can be done without 50 million board feet of timber harvest, and in a way that better harmonizes competing values, such as carbon, at-risk wildlife, and late successional forest,” Oregon Wild writes in a public response to the proposal. “The agency should reconsider timber targets in light of the fact that the public needs carbon storage to reduce global climate change much more than they need wood products.
The majority of the logging would take place in dense tree stands along the Willamette River and its tributaries, leaving a stream buffer of varying yardage between bodies of water and the logging, according to the Forest Service map. The 6,800 acres is mostly clusters of tree stands, and is not one larger continual stand of trees.
Oregon Wild’s response also questions the impact on the northern spotted owl habitat, as this endangered species lives in some of the forest stands that will be logged or thinned.
“As a lay person, it can sound like restoring forest health is a common term. But you know if you dig deeper, what does that mean to the Forest Service? A lot of times, it means logging,” Chandra LeGue of Oregon Wild says in an interview with Eugene Weekly.
LeGue also mentions the Forest Service’s nearby Jim’s Creek restoration project of the late 2000s, which has similar elements to what is being proposed in the Youngs Rock Rigdon project. The Jim’s Creek project ended in disastrous habitat destruction and tree blowdown.
“How will this project ensure the integrity of the forest and avoid the elements of the Jim’s Creek project that failed (i.e., blowdown, soil healthy loss, destruction of underground mycorrhizal systems)?” she writes.
SWFC is a nonprofit focused on the southern Willamette Forest. Many members have ties to Oakridge and are knowledgeable in forest fire management, forest biology and habitat restoration. SWFC worked with the Forest Service for the past two years to establish the project goals. The project also calls for meadow and oak savanna restoration, and floodplain and aquatic restoration.
The Forest Service held an open house on the Youngs Rock Rigdon project July 9 in Lowell. Most people in attendance were SWFC members and Forest Service officials. A few citizens from Lowell and Oakridge also visited.
In the past two years, SWFC established some early ideas for the Youngs Rock Rigdon area and some elements of their suggestions, such as meadow restoration, are reflected in the Forest Service’s proposal.
“People were able to circle what they most valued in the area, whether it was these high meadows here or it was the floodplains where there could be floodplain restoration for the rivers,” Sarah Altemus-Pope, facilitator for SWFC, says in an interview with EW. “So we did this huge overlapping exercise of all the values, took that, gave it to the Forest Service and said this is what the collaborative is finding interesting in that area.”
Forest Service Deputy District Ranger Molly Juillerat said the 6,800 acres was chosen from a greater 33,000-acre parcel in the Youngs Rock Rigdon area because the varied tree stands in that area create a particularly special bio-zone.
“The Oregon white oak, they don’t like shade, so they are being shaded out, and along with them all the meadow species and the wildlife species that depend on them like the monarchs and all other pollinators. So we’d lose that unique landscape,” Juillerat said at the open house.
She added: “That was a big reason for choosing Rigdon and Youngs Rock Rigdon first because it has most of that mixed conifer. That’s the pine and Doug fir and the cedar and oak savanna.”
Cascadia Forest Defenders, a direct-action forest advocacy team, says the Forest Service’s basic motivation here is timber sales, despite the coded wording of “thinning” and “habitat restoration.”
“We’ve got a federal institution that’s pretty much treating the forest like it’s corn. It’s a rotating crop for them,” says Eric Howanietz, activist and volunteer with Cascadia Forest Defenders.
Howanietz visited the specific Youngs Rock Rigdon acreage in question and notes most of the 6,800 acres of tree stands are bordered by Seneca Jones Timber Company land.
“Seneca doesn’t directly have their fingerprints on this project yet. But I bet when those bids go up in a year or two on this project, you’ll see them in the room. Definitely. They get rights to log it, then they get a logging contractor,” Howanietz says.
Howanietz adds the Forest Service can garner as much input as it wants, but once the logging is turned over to a private timber company, the public isn’t really part of the process anymore.
“We put so much effort into really holding them to task while the planning process is going on. There is not really any oversight in the field when the logging starts. Anything could really go down out there,” he says.
The Forest Service’s next steps are to publish an Environmental Impact Statement, likely by early 2020. The project is then open for a public commentary period of 45 days. The final decision whether to go ahead with logging could be made by 2021. The entire project could take five to 10 years to accomplish.
A map of the Forest Service’s proposed zone is available at go.usa.gov/xyYa4.