By Deb McGee
Thousands of majestic old trees in the mountains east of Eugene will soon be headed for lumber mills.
On the heels of the 2020 post-fire salvage logging of millions of trees, the Forest Service is selling yet more timber. The Quartzville-Middle Santiam timber sale, planned for the Willamette National Forest between Sweet Home and Santiam Canyon, covers almost 90,000 acres, borders on wilderness, and will decimate some of the most scenic places in the western Cascades.
Dense stands of previously logged younger trees might benefit from thinning, but the vast scale of the planned project is troubling. Most alarming are plans to clearcut mature and old growth trees. Older forests throughout the Pacific Northwest are becoming increasingly rare, with only 10 percent of Oregon’s original old growth forests still standing. Without a shift in our business as usual priorities, we are in danger of losing these heritage trees forever.
That’s not the only danger we face when we clearcut older forests. These forests play a critical role in protecting all of us from the ravages of climate change. Recent research has documented that older forests in the Cascade Mountains provide some of the highest carbon sequestration on the planet. Climate scientists say that decreasing logging on national forests in the Pacific Northwest is one of the most effective land-use strategies to mitigate climate change. In fact, older trees are able to store carbon for 800 years or more.
Tragically, Oregon’s forest carbon stocks have been severely depleted by large-scale industrial logging. With each new timber sale, they are increasingly compromised. The rapid rate of clearcutting in Oregon mountains has resulted in a sharp increase in carbon sequestration “dead zones,” wastelands that emit more carbon than they absorb.
In fact, a report released by the Center for Sustainable Economy and Geos Institute shows that the forestry sector is Oregon’s second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
In addition, research shows that cutting mature trees makes forests more vulnerable to drought and wildfire. Large, old trees of fire-resistant species are the ones most likely to survive a fire. No scientific justification exists for logging or thinning our mature forests.
As last summer’s heat dome and the devastating 2020 wildfires demonstrated, catastrophic climate change is already occurring. Protecting the stability of the climate is the most urgent task our world faces. If we are to have a sustainable future, our endangered natural forests — forests that serve as huge carbon sinks — should be protected.
We urge the Forest Service to choose “Alternative 4” in the draft Environmental Assessment. This alternative would provide 50 to 60 million board feet of timber, supporting schools and roads in timber communities. Most importantly, it would focus solely on thinning previously logged, younger forests and eliminate logging in old growth stands. All trees more than 80 years old should be excluded from the project.
Tell the Sweet Home Ranger District to provide stewardship that responds to our unprecedented planetary climate crisis. Older trees in the Quartzville-Middle Santiam project should not be reduced to shingles, shelving or decks. They have a critical role to play in sequestering and storing carbon, and they are the last remnant of a magnificent heritage. They are worth far more standing.
Deb McGee is a retired school counselor, mental health professional and college instructor. She and her partner, Patty Hine, lead 350 Eugene, a grassroots climate justice organization dedicated to confronting the root causes of the climate emergency and working locally for bold, science-based policies to address it.