How Bark won the Airstrip Timber Sale victory

In 2009, Bark received a scoping notice from the Salem BLM that it was considering “. . . thinning approximately 277 acres within the matrix and riparian LUA and will consider regeneration harvest [clearcut] on approximately 48 acres…” on LaDee Flat. 

Barkers were already well acquainted with this watershed, as the N. Fork Clackamas was home to No Whisky Timber Sale, Rethin, and four more Forest Service timber sales over the years.  To make matters worse, the BLM claimed the new Airstrip Timber Sale would “restore” the landscape by thinning diverse forest that had naturally regrown after a series of fires. 

So what did Bark do?  We took to the forest.

Hundreds of hours of groundtruthing by Bark volunteers and staff exposed the impact of the proposed road building and logging to rare old growth snags (standing dead trees) and legacy trees in the area.  Using pictures, science and the law, Barkers submitted comments immediately requesting the BLM remove the clearcutting and road building and protect the old growth trees, both alive and dead.

Through each iteration of the public process, Bark’s active challenge to the Airstrip Timber Sale whittled away the project.  In the initial notice, BLM proposed 325 acres of logging.  By the Environmental Assessment, the project decreased to 290 acres, with no clearcutting.  In its Final Decision, BLM dropped the acreage to 207 acres.

Still, this 207 acres included building a road through some of the only old growth snags and legacy trees in the area and logging a steep erosive slope, so Bark continued to fight the sale.  We filed a protest with the BLM.  We appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.  All to no avail – the Airstrip Timber Sale was sold to Freres Lumber, and preparations for logging began.

In 2012, Bark’s staff attorney Brenna Bell filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.  Its main legal question was simple: When there are not enough snags to meet the BLM’s Forest Plan minimum habitat requirements, can the BLM authorize logging of additional snags?

In a decision surprisingly bereft of legal and factual accuracy, the District Court Judge avoided answering that question and found in favor of the BLM.

By this time, so many Barkers had fallen in love with those dead trees we couldn’t stop there.  And, of course, we still wanted that legal question answered.  Bark appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Throughout the entire process, Bark suggested that the BLM modify its project to remove the contested road and acres that contained legacy trees, so as to resolve the conflict.  Believing this still possible, Bark suggested this conflict might be resolved through the Ninth Circuit’s mediation program.  Surprisingly, the BLM seemed to think so too.  And so, the long process of negotiating a settlement began.

Many months and many conversations later, Brenna Bell and Alex Brown spent the day in the forest with the Ninth Circuit mediator and a crew of Salem BLM employees and attorneys.  After a walk through the project area and long discussion, that afternoon we reached a tentative settlement that would remove portions of the contested road and protect the old growth trees in the sale.  Victory was on the horizon!

A few weeks later, the 36 Pit Fire burned its way through the Airstrip Timber Sale.

The negotiations started over.

Amazingly the fire burned hottest in the places Bark had worked hardest to protect, generating a lot of new snags in the process.  The BLM acknowledged that logging would have too much ecological impact in these areas and proposed to remove 25 acres of the sale, including the entirety of the contested road. Great!  Bark agreed.  Once more, victory was on the horizon.

But, just as final approval for the settlement was coming from the US Department of Justice, Bark’s Forest Watch coordinator Michael Krochta noticed something:  wasn’t that new unit of the Little Chair post-fire timber sale part of the area dropped from Airstrip because it burned too hot?  It couldn’t be, could it?  It was!

This new development threatened to undo all the work to this point, as Bark threatened to rescind its approval of the settlement unless the BLM withdrew its plans to log in the area just removed in the Airstrip Timber Sale. 

Tension ran high . . . would the BLM affirmatively respond to Bark’s request and protect the burnt forest?  Or would we be back in court, after working for more than a year to find agreement?

Knowing the Salem BLM as we have, we feared the worst.  But then, a strange thing happened: the BLM agreed to drop all the acres in the Airstrip area from the Little Chair post-fire sale!

Hooray!!!

Now, almost six years after the first Airstrip notice, it is down to 172 acres (from the original 325), and does not include significant road building or logging old growth trees (dead or alive).  Great job Barkers!