Logging program ready to double

Logging levels on federal lands in western Oregon, Washington and Northern California could nearly double under planned changes to the Northwest Forest Plan.

On Friday, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials announced the release of a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to change requirements that the agencies survey for rare species before logging and create buffer areas if those species are found.

The agencies' preferred alternative would eliminate the survey and manage requirements that have been a key component of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan.

A final decision is expected at the end of February.

"We are trying to implement the Northwest Forest Plan goals of achieving healthy forest ecosystems and a sustainable supply of timber," said Dick Prather, Survey and Manage Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement project manager. "Implementation of Survey and Manage Mitigation Measures, Standards and Guidelines has reduced the agencies' abilities to meet these important goals."

The BLM and Forest Service have a goal under the Northwest Forest Plan to harvest 805 million board feet of timber, but repeatedly fall short of that level. The agencies offered 400 million board feet during the 2002 fiscal year, according to Prather.

The agencies estimate logging levels could rise to 770 million board feet, although lawsuits and other factors could prevent harvest of that amount, he said.

Timber company filed a lawsuit

The planned changes are the result of the settlement after Douglas Timber Operators charged that the survey and manage requirements are excessive and unwarranted because they violate a federal sustained yield law and exceed the authority of several federal environmental laws.

Elimination of the requirements has environmental groups charging that the Bush administration is paying back campaign contributors from the timber industry.

"This is all about opening up old growth to logging, a stark contrast to what the majority of Northwesterners want - more old growth protection," said Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland and Williams-based Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center. "It is clearly designed to benefit the president's campaign donors, not forest health."

Without the survey and manage requirements, populations of rare species could decline, forcing more listings under the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists said.

Federal officials said those species still would have protections under Forest Service Sensitive Species and BLM Special Status Species policies, while environmentalists counter that those programs have not provided sufficient protection in the past.

Eliminating the survey and manage requirements would lead to the harvest of 51,000 logging trucks of mature and old growth trees per year, in addition to doubling recent logging levels, according to Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council's Eugene office.

"They're going up to nearly 800 million board feet. They're choosing to escalate the conflict over old growth logging. Whether they'll actually achieve that, I don't know. There will be lots of opposition," he said. "They're breaking a promise that was very, very important of protecting old growth habitat and species."

Small old growth market

Heiken said only a handful of mills in the Northwest still want old growth trees.

"A few of these old dinosaur mills out there want to destroy our children's heritage," he said.

Dave Hill, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, said most mills have converted to handle smaller diameter trees from 12 to 24 inches and there is little incentive to cut old growth.

Elimination of survey and manage rules will not lead to the destruction of old growth forests, but will increase the agencies' ability to thin second growth stands and increase forest health, he said.

"They prefer smaller diameter second growth logs at those mills. Old growth logs are not a premium product anymore," Hill said. "Elimination of survey and manage would make the agencies more efficient and it would be less costly to manage the land. They could focus on forest health."

The agencies would save $15.9 million per year during the next decade, and $7.3 million annually after that from the proposed changes, according to Prather.

Rogue River and Siskiyou National Forest staff will review the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to see how the changes would affect local lands, according to Mary Marrs, spokeswoman for the two National Forests.

Medford District Bureau of Land Management staff could not be reached for comment.

Survey and manage requirements preserved hundreds of acres of Siskiyou Mountain Salamander habitat in the Rogue River National Forest, hundreds of acres of mature and old growth forest where red tree voles were found on the Medford District BLM and other areas where rare species were discovered, according to environmental groups. 

As Forest Service and BLM officials near a final decision on the survey and manage issue, they also expect to issue a decision soon on alterations to the Northwest Forest Plan's Aquatic Conservation Strategy, according to Rex Halloway, a Forest Service spokesman in the Portland regional office.

The agencies propose that individual timber sales and watershed restoration projects, such as culvert replacement, be allowed if they cause short-term damage but do not impair an entire watershed.

The BLM also has settled another lawsuit and agreed to review land use plans by 2008 - which could lead to alterations of the Northwest Forest Plan's system of old growth reserves in some areas, according to Prather.

Klamath Siskiyou