The Good, The Bad & The Ugly….
Conservation Committee Update:
Janice Reid & Angela Jensen
Let’s start with a few “good” news items. In 2019, Oregon conservation groups filed ballot initiatives to reform Oregon’s outdated Forest Practices Act (Act). Concerned with the lack of environmental and habitat protection afforded by the Act, conservation groups signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the timber industry (who had filed competing ballot initiatives) to come together in negotiations. To realize some worthwhile changes, parties to the MOU have negotiated tirelessly this past year. On October 30th, parties signed the Private Forest Accord that will now advance to the legislature to be formally codified as law. Some of the most important highlights of the agreement are expanded riparian buffers, limited industrial logging on steep slopes, new standards for building and maintaining forest roads, and special attention given to Small Forestland Owners. While there is still much to be done to reform the Act, we are heartened that these forward steps can be considered progress (see the Executive Director’s article for more).
Participation in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change/Conference of Parties, or UNFCCC COP 26 is exciting. Preceding this international climate summit and its negotiations, Umpqua Watersheds worked with coalition members to draft and sign on to various letters imploring the Biden Administration to take serious action toward carbon-reduction commitments that would include the conservation and preservation of our Pacific Northwest Forests. Specifically, we sought the protection of old-growth and mature forests on public lands for climate change mitigation. Unfortunately, federal agency climate action plans include little on this topic. Thus, we have more work to do in this area of conservation.
Efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, will not discourage us. We have advocated tirelessly with state agencies and decision-makers to adhere to Governor Brown’s Executive Order requiring Oregon’s administrative agencies to prioritize climate action in their decisions. In October, the Oregon Global Warming Commission released its “Natural and Working Lands Proposal” as the centerpiece of which was to sequester no less than five million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year in Oregon’s working lands by 2030. According to the Proposal, sequestration capacity would only increase in subsequent years. The Oregon Board of Forestry has since approved the Climate Change and Carbon Plan, the content of which was summarized in the Executive Directors summary. While the Plan is not perfect and there is still work to be done, we are seeing steps forward.
We provided comments on the Elliott State Forest transition to a research forest, and we continue to monitor those developments and management decisions. Diana Pace will continue to stay engaged and provide the much needed monitoring of the process.
One big effort we are undertaking and requires more detail, is the monitoring of the Archie Creek Fire and related agency projects. In September 2020, the Archie Creek Fire started from a downed power line. The unusual forecast of high westward winds combined with elevated temperatures created a situation that would prove devastating to residents and our local forests. Federal, state, county, and private landowners joined forces to keep the fire from spreading. Federal and private land burned intensely and when it was over, the area encompassing the burn was 131,580 acres. Approximately 25% of the area was classified as low severity or unburned. Roughly 70% of the area was medium or high severity, half of which was federal land.
The fact that 30% of the area was unburned or low severity burn is heartening. Recovery is happening. Vegetation is regrowing, wildlife is returning, and the soils are starting to rebuild. Nature is rebounding and restoration efforts are underway from various community organizations including Umpqua Watersheds. Our Archie Creek Restoration coordinator has put projects on the ground and enabled volunteers, agency employees, community organizations, and students to participate.
Many burned trees are being harvested as evident from the number of log trucks coming out of the burn area. Unfortunately, there is also harvest of live trees within the fire perimeter on both federal and private land. This is not only unnecessary, but it is counterproductive to the restoration efforts. Natural reforestation is much gentler on the environment and every live tree out there is contributing to the re-establishment of native forest.
Private landowners are harvesting large areas – larger than what would normally be allowed under the antiquated Oregon Forest Practices Act. Whole sections have been cleared of every standing tree, dead or alive, with no mandate to maintain or increase forest diversity by retaining minor species such as hardwoods. This will lead to monoculture stands in the future, the same type of forest that contributed to recent high-intensity burns.
Normally under Oregon Department of Forestry rules, certain streams would be buffered with standing trees, and wildlife trees would be retained in the harvest area. Even dead trees are valuable to wildlife and fish. Standing trees provide shade, among other amenities, which is evident when one drives through the harvested and unharvested areas of the burn. Road construction leads to soil runoff and degradation of water quality, affecting our fisheries as well as our recreational enjoyment.
The damage is not restricted to private land. We found evidence that private contractors had used live trees on public land for tying cables to secure equipment. These cable tie-offs are preceded by notching the tree so that the cable does not slip, effectively cutting through the protective bark of the tree. This action will result in more mortality on public land. Damage to public forests also occurs when trees on adjacent private land are removed. Even dead trees can help block the wind that can topple live trees.
On these public land within the fire perimeter, much of the older forest remains. While some areas did burn intensely, many others were barely affected by the fire. Federal agencies made plans for “danger tree” removal along roads within the perimeter, citing a provision intended only for road maintenance called a “Categorical Exclusion.” This decision by the federal agencies was neither reasoned nor lawful. As such, Umpqua Watersheds is now the lead Plaintiff in litigation against the Forest Service asking that the agency proceed lawfully by fulfilling its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and complete the required Environmental Assessment. We have filed a joint motion with our co-plaintiffs and the Forest Service to postpone any deadlines with the court pending a potential settlement agreement. This agreement will hopefully serve notice that we expect federal agencies to abide by their statutory obligations, while simultaneously leaving the door open to develop harmonic conservation and restoration efforts.
Some of these “danger tree” removal projects are in areas of Late Successional Reserve (LSR). It is certainly not vital to reopen these roads in the short term and could prove less expensive to simply temporarily close these roads as recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Umpqua Watersheds does not dispute that danger tree removal may be necessary along more heavily trafficked routes, but we believe that removal should be selective and only employed where appropriate. Commercial harvest of large old growth trees along short, dead-end roads is a travesty. In some cases, on O&C lands, these roads exist in the first place due to a right of way which agencies are unable to deny (called a non-discretionary right of way). Road construction and forest clearance occur in LSR and near currently occupied spotted owl sites. Private timber companies can, and often do, place right of ways through some of the most economically valuable stands of trees on our public land, ignoring the ecological implications. Agencies and the public are powerless to stop them. We observed trees over several hundred years old commercially harvested from public land, some of which had clearly been alive. Riparian areas had not been protected, and roads were built so hastily that they lack proper drainage culverts.
Our faith in the ability of public land managers to protect the ecological values of the forest continues to decline when we discover such blatant misuse of a provision designed with the legitimate goal of protecting the public. This tactic could be used in future fire areas, including the recent Jack Creek Fire area. Hopefully, concerns expressed about the Archie Creek Fire will be used to better inform decisions regarding project proposals within the Jack Creek Fire perimeter and other similar projects, and those projects will be more ecologically sound and based on legitimate needs.