‘Opposite Day’ at the Forest Service

EUGENE, Ore. (CN) – An environmental group wants to stop the Forest Service from logging 70 percent of the trees on a mountain, and claims the government ginned up “a fictitious need for treatment” to prevent a bogus “catastrophic mortality” of trees by fire and insects. In fact, the group says, the logging would kill far more trees than fire and insects combined.

     The League of Wilderness Defenders – Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project sued the U.S. Forest Service in Federal court. The Forest Service plans to log 70 percent of the trees in the Lookout Mountain Unit of the Deschutes National Forest, and claims that the logging is necessary to prevent the “catastrophic mortality” of trees from forest fires and predation by insects. But the Wilderness Defenders say the government’s own data show that the logging would kill many more trees than fire and insects combined.
     The Forest Service created “a fictitious need for treatment,” claiming imminent threat from wildfires and insects required it to immediately hire commercial loggers to reduce the number of trees in the forest from about 100 per acre to 30 per acre, according to the complaint.
     But the Forest Service’s own numbers don’t back up that plan, the Wilderness Defenders say.
     The forest in the Lookout Mountain Unit regenerated after burning in a high-intensity wildfire 150 years ago. The fire burned in a typical “mosaic pattern” which wiped out some areas while leaving others untouched. Today, the area is part ancient forest, untouched by the 1845 wildfire, interspersed with stands of 165-year-old conifers.
     Since the area burned in a “natural” fire before the institution of fire suppression or logging by settlers, and regenerated on its own, with no help from human replanting, the forests of Lookout Mountain are “one of the last remaining reference conditions in the eastern Oregon Cascades – if not the last remaining reference conditions,” the complaint states.
     Such an area is “an ecological research treasure, where natural conifer regeneration and succession after natural high-intensity fire (in 1845) can be studied, as can the response of many wildlife species, including cavity-nesting birds, to these natural successional processes,” according to the complaint. (Parentheses in complaint.)
     According to the Forest Service’s own Forest Vegetation Simulator data, its logging plan poses a greater threat to the forest than fire and insects combined, the group says.
     If it didn’t log a single tree, Forest Service data show that about 18 percent of the trees in the area would die in the most severe wildfire, the Wilderness Defenders say.
     Despite the Forest Service’s claim that logging must be done immediately to save the trees, the risk actually decreases with time, according to the complaint. By 2022, only 11 percent of the trees would be at risk of dying in a fire, the lawsuit states, citing Forest Service data.
     As for insect predation, the Forest Service failed to note in its proposed action that the scientific studies it cites “generally contradict” its claims about the potential for “catastrophic mortality” of trees due to insects, the lawsuit states.
     The studies conclude that 5 to 20 percent of trees under 85 years old are imperiled from insect predation, with the risk significantly decreasing as the trees age.
     But most of the trees in the Lookout Mountain Unit vary between 165 years old and “ancient,” the Wilderness Defenders say.
     The Forest Service also refused to consider logging only younger trees, but changed the region-wide forest plan to allow commercial loggers to cut down old growth, the Defenders say.
     The Forest Service also refused to consider evidence that the spotted owl actually benefits from high-intensity fire, preferentially choosing areas that have burned for foraging, according to the complaint. Instead, the government allegedly told the public that the indicator species would benefit from the logging.
     Finally, the Forest Service acknowledged that its plan would reduce the number of snags, or dead trees with broken-off tops. But many animals, especially cavity-dwelling birds, depend upon snags for nesting habitat. The logging plan would “reduce the already low snag levels in future decades … rendering less than optimal habitat completely unsuitable for imperiled [management indicator species] and other wildlife species for up to 150 years,” the complaint states.
     Despite acknowledging that its plan would “exacerbate the current threats to cavity-nesting wildlife species, [the Forest Service] dismissed this concern without conducting any analysis of these adverse impacts.”
     The Wilderness Defenders say the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which “requires a ‘hard look’ at the environmental impact of proposed federal actions and full disclosure of these impacts to the public.”
     The Act also requires the agency to “give a reasoned explanation for rejecting each alternative,” the lawsuit states.
     Forest Service representatives declined to comment.
     The Wilderness Defenders demand an order stopping the logging project until the Forest Service has prepared an environmental impact statement that complies with the National Environmental Policy Act.
     The Wilderness Defenders’ lead attorney is Sean Malone of Eugene.

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