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Should Controversial Southern Oregon Timber Harvest Become Regional Model?

Devan Schwartz

A controversial method of logging is being tested on a Bureau of Land Management forest in Southern Oregon. The idea is to remove trees in the same way nature does. It’s being touted as a model for the Pacific Northwest.

Critics say it’s just a new twist on the same old problem: too much logging and not enough environmental protection.

Steep hillsides slant toward a bright blue sky. This section of forest, known as the Buck Rising site, is a checkboard landscape. It ranges from intact forests, to stands of thinned trees, to clearcuts.

Forester Abe Wheeler is showing off the results of this so-called ecological forestry project.

Wheeler: “We’re trying to take a mechanical disturbance — which is harvesting practices or logging — and we’re trying to make that look closely as possible to a natural disturbance like a wildfire or a windstorm.”

The argument is that fires and storms bring down trees as part of a natural cycle. Healthier forests often grow as a result.

But not everyone sees the upside for the environment at Buck Rising.

Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix
Bureau of Land Management forester Abe Wheeler says logging on the Buck Rising timber harvest demonstrates the successes of ecological forestry techniques known as variable retention harvests.

On a recent tour of the site, Wheeler explained why some species of trees were removed.

A local landowner and a conservationist were skeptical.

Wheeler: “Hardwoods that were there were struggling.”

Crowd: “There was a lot of nice madrones — huge madrones, old beautiful madrones, they cut them all down.”

Wheeler: “Okay, so I have numbers to back up these statements. I’m not lying.”

The BLM says the best available science backs up its work. These forestry practices were developed by top researchers in the field.

Their work forms the backbone of a proposal by Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden to double timber production on Western Oregon’s BLM lands in a sustainable way.

But conservation groups aren’t ready for the logging techniques used at Buck Rising to be carried out on up to a million acres of Northwest forests.

Chandra LeGue is with Oregon Wild.

LeGue: “We just think it’s a bit irresponsible to rush full-bore with a new, mostly untried, way of logging. Learning some lessons from what they’ve done here before moving ahead and applying these same prescriptions across the entire landscape would be a good step forward.”

Senator Wyden defends the forestry practices demonstrated on Buck Rising.

Wyden: “Variable retention has been tested in a number of parts of the world. It’s really synonymous with ecological forestry.”

Government foresters say one environmental benefit is that these timber harvests create younger forests that many plants and animals need.

Credit Devan Schwartz / Earthfix
Frances Eatherington, conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands, says the BLM should pursue forest thinning rather than more intensive logging.

Frances Eatherington is the conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands.

She says the priority should instead be protecting older forests; that’s where spotted owls, salmon and other threatened and endangered species find critical habitat.

Eatherington: “We have bountiful young forests for the wildlife that depend on young forests. We are hugely lacking in older forests for wildlife.”

Eatherington is calling for Wyden’s proposal to be scrapped altogether.

She’s advocating for less invasive logging and more thinning in dense stands of young trees and brush.

Eatherington: “There is a huge backlog of thinning. BLM estimates they have another 20 years left. We would like to see them finish this needed restoration instead of moving to the more controversial clearcutting that they did on Buck Rising.”

Nevertheless, more logging using the same methods will begin this summer.

Senator Wyden is seeking a vote on his bill by the end of the year.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix

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