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A timber sale in Oregon tests Biden’s pledge to protect older trees

Conservationists are demanding the Forest Service drop its plans to log mature trees. The agency is plowing ahead.

Trees charred by a fire stand in the foreground of the North Sister and Middle Sister peaks in Melakwa in the Willamette National Forest near McKenzie Bridge, Ore., in 2017. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard/AP)

Not far from the town of McKenzie Bridge, Ore., on the western slope of the Cascades, stand towering groves of trees that have survived more than a century of wind, fire, insects and disease. To Jerry Franklin, long-considered one of the foremost authorities on old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, this landscape of mature Douglas-fir and western hemlock is thriving and, most significantly, removing evermore carbon from the atmosphere.

That is not what the Forest Service sees. Too many trees in this corner of the Willamette National Forest are competing for water and sunlight, and some are dying, agency officials say.

Now the service is preparing to auction off these woodlands as early as next year as part of a timber sale, called Flat Country, that targets nearly 4,500 acres. Conservation groups that have analyzed the project say the vast majority of the lumber the agency intends to cut would come from stands of trees ranging in age from 80 to 150 years old.

The agency’s plans present one of the earliest tests of the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting America’s older forests as part of its fight against climate change. Biden faces a choice of backing the Forest Service’s desire to hold the sale or siding with conservationists to demand a reappraisal of a controversial logging project.

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This year, Biden signed an executive order directing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to inventory mature and old-growth forests nationwide and to craft policies that protect them from wildfire and other threats. The order did not define an “old” forest or explicitly ban logging. But conservationists saw it as an indication that the administration was serious about preserving trees that play an essential role in forestalling the worst effects of climate change. They applauded the order and waited for the Forest Service to call off the sale.

That hasn’t happened. So far, the agency has shown no sign of backing down from plans first proposed under the Donald Trump administration. Critics of the logging project are crying betrayal.

“It’s totally in opposition to what that executive order calls for,” Franklin said. “There is no ecological justification for what they’re doing.”

By his reckoning, the project would result in more older, natural forest being harvested than has been cut in western Oregon’s national forests in the past 15 years. Once logged, it could be decades before the forest regains the ability to store as much carbon as it holds today, he said. The area may also be susceptible to more extreme flooding, Franklin said, as without the trees’ massive canopy, snowfall will quickly melt.

But the Forest Service argues that it must hold the auctions to provide a steady supply of timber to sawmills and to meet its annual harvesting goals. In a document explaining their decision, agency officials wrote that the project would benefit the forest by reducing its density, giving remaining trees more room to grow.

The president’s executive order “does not stop forestry activity,” Wade Muehlhof, a Forest Service spokesman, wrote in an email. When planning timber sales, the Forest Service “considers many things, including the perspectives of scientists and other important stakeholders, coupled with governing direction from Congress and the President, including Executive Orders.”

The White House has not made its position on the dispute clear, at least publicly. A spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality declined to say whether the Flat Country sale is allowed under Biden’s order.

Though there is no agreed-upon definition of mature or old-growth forests, there is scientific consensus on the importance of protecting older trees. As they age, trees become critical carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they release into the atmosphere. Forests that reach the old-growth stage, a term often used to describe trees over 150 years old, collectively store billions of tons of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches and roots.

Timber sales on national forests in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are more tightly regulated than anywhere else in the country because of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. The truce reached between loggers and environmentalists during the Bill Clinton administration stopped the extensive logging of old-growth forests that had ushered in the decline of the northern spotted owl. But as part of the compromise, the government agreed to set aside some forest land for logging. The Flat Country project is within that area.

Lawsuits and the threat of public backlash have, for years, made the Forest Service reluctant to log mature forests, which have many of the same characteristics as old-growth. After the compromise plan, the agency shifted its focus to thinning out the dense tree plantations that replaced natural forests lost to fire or clear-cutting.

To its critics, Flat Country is a worrisome test case — a sign that the agency is displaying a new willingness to cut down older trees that are well on their way to becoming old-growth in the future.

But to the timber industry, this is what the Northwest Forest Plan intended.

“This is one of the first projects in about 25 years that implements the Northwest Forest Plan,” said Travis Joseph, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group. “The Forest Service is allowed under the law to manage some acres for wood production and that’s what this project does.”

“Our rejoinder has been, ‘Well, just because the Northwest Forest Plan says you can, doesn’t mean you should,’ ” said Susan Jane Brown, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, a conservation group. “You’ve got the world-renowned experts on old-growth forests telling the agencies this is a bad idea.”

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Franklin and Brown have walked through the woods targeted for cutting with Forest Service employees, pointing out its value as wildlife habitat. They and other advocates have urged the agency to drop all the trees over 80 years old from the project, reducing its footprint to just over 1,000 acres of younger forest. But the Forest Service rejected this proposal, noting that it would yield 14 million board feet of timber, a fraction of the 102 million board feet it plans to harvest from the Willamette.

Franklin, who was involved in drafting the Northwest Forest Plan, said the agency did not consider the latest science on mature forests’ value as wildlife habitat and as a climate safety net.

“They really feel this is the right thing to do, and more than that, it’s what the Northwest Forest Plan called for,” Franklin said. “Well, times have changed. And we’ve learned a lot more and we value these mature and old forests more than we did previously.”

In eastern Oregon, a different fight is unfolding between environmentalists and the Forest Service over the agency’s decision to end the “21-inch rule.”

This policy, which had been in place for more than two decades, barred loggers from felling trees more than 21 inches in diameter. The service revised the rule in the final days of the Donald Trump administration, ending the prohibition and giving forest managers more leeway to decide which trees could be cut in eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington.

The new policy has divided environmentalists. Some, like Franklin, advocated for the change and see it as necessary to managing forests that have become overgrown, partly because of decades of federal policy that mandated extinguishing wildfires as soon as they started. Under the previous rule, forest managers complained that it was difficult to remove fire-prone species like Grand fir and White fir that grow quickly. Meanwhile, slower-growing but more fire-resistant trees like Ponderosa pines were vulnerable to being cut.

But others have condemned the decision. On Tuesday, six conservation groups sued the agency, alleging that it violated the National Environmental Protection Act and seeking to prevent it from using the new rule.

Jared Kennedy, interim director of the conservation group Greater Hells Canyon Council, which is a party to the lawsuit, said that while the 21-inch rule wasn’t perfect, it was an “enforceable standard.” The Forest Service faces constant pressure from the timber industry to log the biggest, most commercially valuable trees, Kennedy said. Without the diameter limits, he worries that each regional forester will apply the guidelines differently, opening up the possibility of mature and old-growth trees being cut down.

“What we’re hearing now is the Forest Service saying, ‘Trust us,’ ” Kennedy said. “But we don’t have that history. We’ve seen them cut trees under the guise of them being diseased. We’ve seen long-established trees felled and removed. That trust has not been lived up to.”

In the middle of the current tug-of-war between the service and environmentalists are several logging and thinning projects planned under the new rule, most of which are still in the proposal stage. They include projects in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the Fremont-Winema National Forest and the Umatilla National Forest.

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