A Tale of Two Timber Sales

Most reasonable people agree that thinning small-diameter tree plantations throughout Southern Oregon not only should happen; it needs to happen. We at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild) estimate that over 500,000 acres of native old-growth forests in the region have already been converted into small-diameter fiber plantations on our public lands. Similarly, the Medford Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently stated that over 770,000 acres of our public forestlands contain trees less than 12 inches wide that could be thinned. 

Conservationists and foresters see eye-to-eye that these dense young tree plantations are often overstocked, of marginal value to wildlife, and tend to burn at stand replacing intensity. There is widespread social and scientific consensus that small-diameter plantation thinning can result in healthier forests, labor-intensive jobs in the woods, and a significant amount of wood fiber. 

Given the win-win nature of small-diameter timber sales, why haven’t we seen more of them? One answer is because artificial timber targets rather than a genuine concern for forest health often drive local federal timber sale planning. Perhaps the best example of this unfortunate reality is found in the Glendale Resource Area of the Medford BLM. 

Anyone who has spent any time in the Glendale Resource Area knows that its checkerboard land ownership pattern is defined by thousands of acres of industrial tree farms that could benefit from small-diameter thinning projects. 

There is one notable exception to the thousands of acres of young fiber plantations that cover these public lands; that exception is the 46,600 acre Zane Grey Roadless Area that surrounds the Wild and Scenic Rogue River corridor just east of the Wild Rogue Wilderness. Not only is this ancient forest the largest intact block of old-growth in the Medford BLM, it is the largest intact block of old-growth managed by the BLM in the country. It is a special, unique and healthy ecosystem, located in a BLM Resource Area that has long since wiped-out any forest of comparable size or value.

Unfortunately the Medford BLM has plans to log 1,700 acres of this old-growth forest through the Kelsey Whisky timber sale. This logging plan includes 500 acres of regeneration (clearcutting) in watersheds where the BLM knows that past clearcutting has created flammable brush fields rather than healthy forests. 

In addition to the traditional old-growth clearcutting, the BLM is also proposing some plantation thinning in the very same planning area in order to promote forest health. Both the old-growth clearcutting and the small-diameter thinning were planned together as parts of the Kelsey Whisky project. Hence, at the same time that the BLM is acknowledging the need to thin the extensive network of fiber plantations, they are also busy converting ancient forests into even more of these dense young fiber farms.

By linking small-diameter thinning projects to old-growth logging, the BLM has created a lose-lose situation. The potential benefits of the small-diameter thinning are offset by the continued logging of more old-growth trees, and thinning projects that would otherwise be non-controversial get caught up in litigation and appeals designed to protect the last of our ancient forests. 

While the BLM has a history and culture of converting old-growth forests like those in Kelsey Whisky into fiber plantations, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Recently the Grants Pass Resource Area developed the Hellgate “Healthy Forests Initiative” pilot project timber sale that focuses exclusively on small-diameter thinning around homes and communities, and contained no old-growth logging. The result? The environmental community endorsed the thinning project, and it is currently in the process of being implemented. Homes will be safer and forests will be healthier because the BLM developed a thinning project that wisely left the old-growth trees standing. 

The only thing that can unravel the widespread consensus supporting small-diameter thinning is if a handful of federal timber planners insist on using such projects as a Trojan horse to log big old trees. 

The Kelsey Whisky timber sale is an example of such a Trojan horse, while the Hellgate Healthy Forest Initiative timber sale is an example of a genuine forest health prescription that is what it says it is. Here’s to more timber sales like Hellgate, and fewer like Kelsey Whisky.

George Sexton is Conservation Director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild). KS Wild works throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California to protect the roadless areas, old-growth forests and the clean water and wildlife habitat that they provide.

ForestsKlamath Siskiyou