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Environmental activists protest BLM timber sale

 A group of people carrying banners walk towards the camera. One banner reads "Defend the forest! Clear-cut Wall Street!"
Chrissy Ewald
This group of environmentalists oppose the sale, which they say threatens habitat for the imperiled northern spotted owl and would lower water quality in thinned areas.

A group of protesters blocked the entrance to Sierra Pacific Industries’ lumber mill in Eugene Wednesday to protest the company’s contract to log Bureau of Land Management timber lands.

About two dozen protesters sat between the train tracks and the entrance to the mill for more than an hour before police arrived. The group was protesting a recent timber sale by the Bureau of Land Management that would allow Sierra Pacific to commercially thin over 16,000 acres of public land north of Highway 126, just east of Siuslaw National Forest in western Lane County.

Protesters and the BLM disagree over how the thinning will affect the health of forests and animals.

“Although the BLM has kind of created this idea that it is to just thin the forests, through field checking and other ways of looking through the forest, we have found out that a lot of the forests are not young,” said Riley Fields, a forest conservation activist who was at the protest. “They’re actually mature and contain a lot of old growth and very, like, integral environments and ecosystems for the animals that live there.”

Sarah Bennett, a spokesperson for the regional office of the Bureau of Land Management, said no trees over 40 inches in diameter or from before 1850 will be removed. She said the main goal of the project is actually to restore the forest to a more natural state. Previous land management practices have made many Oregon forests unnaturally dense.

“These forests are very far departed from their natural state, from how natural succession would have carried forward,” she said. Thinning leaves more room for large, mature trees to grow. It also seeks to increase habitat for animals, including the threatened northern spotted owl.

Many BLM lands in West Coast states, including those included in this sale, were previously owned by the Oregon and California Railroad. When the railroad returned these “O&C lands” to the government in the early 1900s, Bennett said they were designated with a specific purpose: “to produce a sustained yield of timber, in part to help keep the economies of Western Oregon going.” The money from timber sales on O&C land is split between the BLM and the county the land is on.

In 2016, the Oregon and Washington BLM created a resource management plan that designated uses for O&C land. Twenty percent was designated for conventional timber harvest, and the other 80% was designated as various types of “reserves.” Bennett said the term “reserve” can often cause confusion, because to some people it suggests the land is set aside from timber production.

In reality, “reserve” here describes land that has the potential to become mature forestland. Thinning is part of the forest management system required to get those lands to that state. Bennett said that rather than pay someone to remove trees and dispose of them, the BLM sees it as “more responsible to the American taxpayer” to make money by selling rights to do the thinning to timber companies.

In addition, Bennett said the BLM is actually required to sell trees that are larger than eight inches in diameter. While the BLM can remove underbrush using methods like prescribed burns, they can’t remove any large trees that way.

OregonWild, a local environmental law group, says the BLM failed to adequately consider the effects that logging these areas will have on already struggling animal species, including the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and Coho salmon.

Field managers at the Marys Peak and Siuslaw Field Offices found there would be no significant environmental impact from opening the land to commercial thinning.

Patty Hein, one of the protesters blocking the entrance, said there’s broader context to their action. Last year, the Biden administration directed federal agencies to catalogue mature and old-growth forests and use their findings to develop policy plans. The BLM and USFS are currently deciding whether to increase protections for those types of forest.

“So (Biden) told the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service to do that, and they did,” Hein said. “This year, they’re making policy. So this is a year for public pressure, and this is public pressure.”

Hein said watching her farmland dry out over the past ten years was a catalyst for getting involved in environmental activism.

“I’m a smart person and I want to do something to stop the destruction,” she said. “And so I’ve just found that activism is probably the most effective way, and I’m using some of my skills to activate with older people to get this done.”

Bennett said it’s too early for the regional BLM office to speak about potential rule changes at the federal level.

Two environmental law groups, Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, are currently suing the BLM over the sale for alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Though many said they were willing to be arrested, the protesters dispersed after police warned them that if they did not move, they would be arrested for criminal trespass in the first degree.

Chrissy Ewald is a freelance reporter for KLCC. She first reported for KLCC as the 2023 Snowden Intern.