Sandy Post: Group lays claim to forcing forest protections

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management should have known better.

Indian Creek in Lake Branch Timber Sale.

Group lays claim to forcing forest protections
Bark says it brings attention to logging buffer zones

By Jeff Spiegel
The Sandy Post, Feb 21, 2012

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management should have known better.

At least that’s the message from Bark, a Portland-based environmental advocacy group.

The group says the federal agencies received a letter in 2009 notifying them that the no-cut zone along sensitive stream areas had been expanded on 17 timber sales from 2007, but the Forest Service and BLM ignored the change in policy.

Bark now reports it’s been able to stop timber harvest in nine of the unlogged sales.

Of the nine remaining sales, seven are in the Mount Hood National Forest. One of the areas on Mount Hood – the “2007 Thin” – featured the largest acreage ever proposed for a timber sale in the Clackamas Ranger District.

That area featured four sales totaling 4,374 acres in an area approximately 18 miles southwest of Estacada.

The process

When the Forest Service and BLM put up a timber sale, there are a number of things that must happen. Among the most important steps in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Services on threatened and endangered species.

The point of the consultation is to assess the impact any particular timber sale would have on the surrounding fish and wildlife habitat. The consultation typically produces a “no-cut buffer zone,” which outlines how many feet from a creek or river are deemed out-of-bounds by logging operations.

In 2007, the Forest Service set up a number of timber sales across Oregon, including sales in the Clackamas River District. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, all of those sales required a no-cut buffer zone of 50 feet.

Here’s what happened

As the economy weakened and spiraled into recession, many of these timber sales went unharvested. And two years later after the sales had been approved, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued revisions to streamside protections.

By 2009, Bark, which monitors local logging projects, noticed the 50-foot buffer zone had been expand to 100-foot zones on all sales without explanation. When Bark asked the Forest Service about the sudden change in policy, the organization was told it was just how things were being done at the time.

But more precisely, in 2009, the Forest Service and BLM had received a follow-up letter from the Fisheries Service saying the no-cut buffer zones in the initial 2007 consultation were no-longer sufficient. Upon further review, the Fisheries Service realized that to maintain shade for rivers and streams, and to provide a suitable environment for endangered species, the no-cut zone needed to expand to 100 feet.

What had happened was that the Forest Service received the letter, and instead of applying it retroactively to the sites that were in the process of being logged, it applied the rule only to sales that were made after the letter was received.

Bark reports it was unaware that the Fisheries Service had sent the letter, leaving it in the dark about why the buffer changes had been made. What deepened its curiosity was the realization that Douglas fir prices were beginning to improve, which likely would jumpstart logging activities on long -dormant timber sales.

Bark was concerned that if all of these areas were logged at once, the sum environmental impact may be greater than the individual impact of each of the parts.

Red flags

To make sure that this analysis had, in fact, been done prior to the coming influx of logging, Bark submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to both the Forest Service and the Fisheries Service.

“What we received was remarkable,” said Olivia Schmidt, Bark’s program director. “The National Forest Service response did not include the 2009 letter, but the NMFS (Fisheries Service) response did, which was a huge red flag for us.

“What we saw was that the Forest Service and BLM were expected to change the projects with the new information but they didn’t do that. Our interpretation was that they didn’t want to go back and do the work with the timber companies.

“The Forest Service was intentionally withholding documents from us and they had ignored the mandate.”

In the mandate from the Marine Fisheries Service, the buffer zone needed to be changed in 17 timber sales that spanned 19,000 acres of federally owned forest in Oregon. The problem was that eight of these sales had already been logged to a point where there was no remedy.

“Their denial, or ignorance or refusal to act appropriately caused all that other forest to be damaged,” Schmidt said.

Bark filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service and BLM, hoping to force the nine remaining timber sales to comply with the Fisheries Service expanded protections.

“We felt it was our job to hold the land managers accountable and that they should have been responsive to the NMFS,” Schmidt said.

The good news is that a settlement was reached between the groups, and the nine remaining sites will all be logged according to the protections indicated in the 2009 letter.

Bark also could have included the Marine Fisheries Service in the suit as well for failing to enforce or follow-up on the letter they sent in 2009, but decided against it.