By Janice Reid
Here in the Umpqua, we have so many entities that make policies and decisions about the land. Federal, state, county, private, city, tribal, and non-governmental organizations comprise most entities. It is often hard to keep up with all the planning and prioritize projects. Sometimes it can seem as if we are swimming upstream with all of the political and economic forces pushing us downstream. Yet, we continue trying, just as the salmon struggles against the current. Eventually, we will prevail when we are in the right spot at the right time, and we arrive above the rapids of turbulent political and economic forces to find a respite in the calm waters. Just over a year ago, we joined a challenge to the USFS Archie Creek Roadside Danger Tree removal projects. We did our field outings to check the area, called the USFS (who did not return our call), and discussed it with our board. We decided that the project contained elements that were far-reaching and unnecessary. The plan lacked protection for green trees and Late Successional Reserves (LSR). The potential for irreversible harm was enough for us to join the lawsuit to prevent unnecessary destruction. We had no interest in preventing roadside hazard reduction where it made sense: through roads, high-traffic roads, and recreational spots. We enjoy traveling in the forest and exploring, camping, and hiking. Our concerns were focused on whether it was necessary and legal to do so. In our estimation, the need to treat roads that are dead ends and in LSR was not a need of the agency. The process bypassed the environmental laws by using “categorical exclusion” not intended for large-scale projects. Because of our strong legal stand on this, the Forest Service agreed to a settlement, and they started the process utilizing more legal procedures.
The new plan contained the same roads (except those already treated under the previous plan) and the same treatment proposals. The concerns are the same for this new plan as the last. The need to treat the last 0.1 miles of road as it enters LSR (see photo 1) is difficult to comprehend. The consistent purpose for removing hazard trees along the roads in the project area is for reforest access and future surveys. These roads are already recovering. Reforestation is a short-term activity, but roadside hazard tree removal is dangerous and would negatively impact the landscape for years. Green trees in the area are already reseeding the landscape. In LSRs, the Northwest Forest Plan expected wildfires recommending that landscapes recover naturally. As of Feb 17, 2023, the North Umpqua Trail in the Panther Section remained closed, yet, the reasoning for opening some of these roads is for trail access. One of these trails ultimately leads to the Panther section of the North Umpqua Trail. If it is so hazardous to walk on these roads that trees need to be removed so that they don’t fall on people, would it not be more hazardous for hikers to walk off the road onto trails in the burn area?
Hazard tree removal along forest roads can positively and negatively impact the environment, depending on how it is carried out. It can be necessary to ensure public safety along forest roads, as trees can pose a significant risk of falling onto roads and vehicles. Almost all of the roads listed for treatment of roadside hazard tree removal justify it for “Reforestation area access and subsequent future year surveys.” I understand the need for the employees to access the area safely, but at what cost to the environment? Hopefully, there is some sensical evaluation of those trees that truly pose a hazard and in areas employees frequent, not just areas where periodic surveys occur. Opening up roads currently closed to the public could increase the odds of a tree injuring or killing a person as it allows increased access to more people.
In addition, removing trees and road renovation can have ecological impacts, including soil disturbance, disruption and loss of wildlife habitat, and changes to forest structure and composition. Roads in western Oregon are responsible for the fragmentation of natural habitats, which can lead to biodiversity loss and the displacement of wildlife, including endangered species.
Roads also contribute to changes to forest structure and composition and increased erosion and sedimentation in waterways, leading to the degradation of water quality and the destruction of aquatic habitats.
Trees play a crucial role in ecosystem processes, such as nutrient cycling and carbon storage. Leaving dead trees, also known as snags, can benefit the environment after a wildfire. Although dead trees may seem like a hazard, they play a vital role in forest ecosystems and can contribute to the recovery and resilience of forests following a wildfire. Even without a canopy, these trees provide a significant amount of shade on the forest floor, protecting recovering landscapes from excessive solar radiation. The Forest Service has to contend with competing interests on how best to manage the area. To their credit, they have tried to discuss the issues with conservation organizations. Ultimately, they decided that any modification would likely cause disagreement with those whose interests are not in ecological protection. Reducing hazardous conditions is our obligation. Nothing is hazard free in life. We don’t drain the river to prevent drowning.