After the Fires

Environmentalists are concerned about salvage logging and tree removal projects on public and private lands across Oregon spurred by 2020’s Labor Day fires

About a month after losing her house in the Holiday Farm Fire, Patricia Hathaway woke up at 4:30 am. She dragged her husband out of bed, ushered him and their dogs into the car and drove from Eugene to the McKenzie River, parking near the site of her lost house to watch the sun rise over the water. 

But when she got out of the car, all Hathaway heard was equipment running as people in heavy machines cut down trees on the other side of the river. 

“I freaked out,” Hathaway says. “Most of these trees were like 160 years old. These are some great old trees, and when they fall, the ground shakes. It moves your soul.” 

Almost immediately after the Holiday Farm Fire, Hathaway noticed trees being taken down “just everywhere” — on private lots, in tree plantations and along the McKenzie Highway, she said. Like many, she’s concerned about the environmental impacts of post-fire logging, especially on the McKenzie River, Eugene’s only water source. 

Months after the Labor Day wildfires hit, burning about 1 million acres of Oregon forests,  logging has increased despite the heightened environmental harm caused by cutting burned trees. Affected areas include forests scorched by the Archie Creek fire, near Roseburg, the Holiday Farm Fire, near Eugene and Springfield, and the Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Riverside fires in and around the Santiam State Forest. 

Private and public entities say they often log to preserve the economic value of damaged trees, to protect the public from burned trees falling or to continue pre-existing logging projects. But environmental groups are expressing concern about the recent post-fire tree removal happening around Oregon. 

Following a fire, “there’s loopholes for public participation and environmental analysis,” of timber sales, says Chandra LeGue, a field coordinator at Oregon Wild. “Normally there’s this whole process they have to go through to look at what the environmental impacts are and engage the public, but with post-fire logging, they can side step all of that.” 

Under the National Environmental Policy Act, public agencies can use Categorical Exclusions to carry out actions, including some logging projects, without an environmental review if it determines that the action won’t have a significant environmental impact. The Trump administration expanded the scope of Categorical Exclusions, allowing for commercial timber harvest of up to 4,200 acres without environmental review, and some Oregon agencies have used the exclusion for post-fire logging in Oregon. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed salvage harvesting about 900 acres impacted by the Holiday Farm Fire. The project would take place on land designated for sustainable timber harvest and fits under a Categorical Exclusion, according to BLM’s press release. The agency has also proposed salvage harvesting about 1,500 acres burned by the Archie Creek Fire this fiscal year and about 1,200 next year, says Assistant Field Manager Cheyne Rossbach. This project underwent an environmental assessment, and both proposals had public comment periods. 

In April, more than 20 environmental groups, including Oregon Wild, wrote to the Biden administration asking officials to block the BLM and Forest Service from using Categorical Exclusions for logging in areas impacted by the Labor Day fires. 

“The BLM and USFS are proposing to carry out most of this historic landscape-scale logging on public lands using Categorical Exclusions (CE) to bypass the required environmental impact analysis and public participation processes,” the letter stated. 

Eugene BLM field manager Becca Brooke says a team of about 30 scientists at the BLM thoroughly reviews logging projects to determine if they qualify for Categorical Exclusions. The BLM  “takes a really hard look” at the environmental impacts of timber harvesting after a fire whether or not it uses the exclusion, which primarily affects public perception, she says. It considers water quality, species habitat and preservation of important Indigenous sites. 

“It’s a big impact to the community and we want to get it right,” Brooke says. “We know that this is a special place people really care about.” 

The lands affected were previously set aside for timber production, and the BLM is legally required to harvest timber on them, Brooke says. 

Up north on state land in the Santiam State Forest, the Oregon Department of Forestry has proposed salvage logging across 3,000 acres 一 about 1,900 for clear cut logging and about 1,100 for partial cut logging 一 which were scorched by wildfires, according to the department’s Revised Annual Operations Plan. On April 14, several environmental groups filed a lawsuit attempting to block the project, citing concerns about recreation, forest health and drinking water. 

“Closed to visitors since 2020’s Labor Day wildfires, the state forest is currently being extensively logged by the Oregon Department of Forestry,” the environmental groups wrote in a press release. A Multnomah County judge declined to issue an injunction and ruled that ODF could continue with the project. 

Alongside Oregon roads, public agencies are removing trees deemed hazardous to the public. 

The Forest Service plans to remove hazard trees along about 390 roadside miles in areas burned by the Holiday Farm, Lionshead and Beachie Creek fires, and the Oregon Department of Transportation announced on its website that it plans to remove about 140,000 hazard trees. 

According to ODOT’s blog, the state agency’s arborists use FEMA criteria to determine if a tree is a hazard tree; they cut dead or dying trees that are near roads and that will threaten public safety within the next five years. OPB reports that workers have come forward with allegations of excessive tree cutting and poor management by ODOT.

Environmentalists are concerned there isn’t enough accountability to ensure that public agencies only remove trees that are truly hazardous to the public and say that, in some areas, trees that don’t post a public safety threat are still being cut. “It’s a matter of being a little bit choosier about where we’re removing the hazard, making sure that they’re actually hazards to the public,” LeGue says. 

While environmentalists have pushed back against public salvage logging and hazard tree removal projects, much of the post-fire cutting is happening on private land. Public salvage logging projects like “are part of a much larger landscape that includes a lot of private industrial timber lands that are being logged like crazy,” LeGue says. 

Rebecca White, Oregon Wild’s wildlands director, agrees that “so much really, really detrimental environmental impact is coming off of our private industrial timber lands which are pretty unregulated.” An estimated 35% of the land burned by the Labor Day fires is private land, according to the Oregon Forest and Industry Council’s website. 

Fires open up a “sidestep of the law” on private lands,” LeGue says. Usually, regulations prevent private entities from clearcutting over 250 acres at a time, “but after a fire, that just goes out the window.”

Whether post-fire logging is happening on private or public land, it has a heightened environmental impact. It increases the sedimentation in nearby streams and rivers by disrupting the burned, delicate soil and removing the trees holding it in place. Sedimentation caused by fires and post-fire logging is contaminating the McKenzie River, threatening Chinook and steelhead fish and Eugene’s water supply, White says. 

Post-fire logging also removes habitat, making it harder for forests to regenerate naturally, and reduces the carbon sequestered in forests, LeGue says. 

Tree plantations replacing burned forests can increase the intensity of future fires. “We know from the Holiday Farm Fire that the tree plantations burned much more severely than the complex, natural forests,” White says. “We’re again setting ourselves on a path for really severe future wildfires by logging these off and replanting them with plantations.” 

Many environmentalists, like LeGue and White, want full transparency from public agencies about where they’re logging and how they’re selecting trees to cut as well as more regulation of post-fire logging on private lands. Besides limited hazard tree removal when necessary for public safety, they believe the best approach is to let Oregon forests regenerate on their own. 

“Natural regeneration is really powerful,” White says. “People often think that the forest needs to be logged and replanted to recover, but it actually recovers faster if you just leave it alone.”

Comments are closed.