One third of Oregon's public forest lands
In my wanderings in eastern Oregon doing research for the hiking guide “Oregon’s Ancient Forests” I visited some really spectacular landscapes and wild places. I hiked through the larch and lodgepole forests along South Fork Desolation Creek in the Vinegar Hill Scenic Area; the spruce and fir forest along Dutch Flat Creek that leads into the heart of the Elkhorn Mountains; the open Ponderosa pine forests along the designated Wild and Scenic Eagle Creek on the south side of the Eagle Cap Wilderness; and the mixed conifer forests in the unroaded, wild forest lands between Glacier Mountain and the North Fork Malheur River. I’ve described some of my experiences in these forests in previous posts - from encountering cows along Myrtle Creek, to seeing a moose in the upper reaches of the Walla Walla River.
For the 18 hikes in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Malheur National Forests that will be featured in the book, I explored areas of huge trees, healthy streams supporting trout and salmon, incredibly diverse forests, and habitat for woodpeckers, moose, and wolves. And while I saw so much that we can celebrate about Oregon in this region, I also saw stream banks trampled by cows, monoculture tree plantations, illegal off-road trails, and forests everywhere where the biggest trees had been logged.
All of these National Forests and the areas I explored fall under a newly finalized management plan, released in July of 2018. Covering nearly 5.5 million acres - one-third of Oregon’s public forest lands! - the Blue Mountains Forest Plan replaces 25-year-old plans for the management of these forests. Given all we’ve learned about forest ecology; the negative impacts of fire suppression, grazing, and logging; a new era of climate change; and the changing attitudes about the importance of public lands, wildlife habitat, and restoring healthy ecosystems the Forest Service had an opportunity to improve on these outdated plans and bring management in line with the modern era. Unfortunately, it has not. Instead, the plan adopts outdated priorities like logging and grazing, while de-emphasizing the importance of recreation, wildlife, carbon storage, and protecting remaining ancient forests.
For example, most of the ancient forests left in eastern Oregon are in wild, unroaded areas - some 1.8 million acres of these largely pristine forests exist across the Blue Mountains plan area. Under the new plan, the Forest Service had a tremendous opportunity to recommend Wilderness designation (sending a message about the importance of these places to Congress) and to manage these special places to maintain their wild character. But the plan recommends a mere 4% of these unroaded forests for future protection. While designated roadless areas (including many explored in my book) will still have protections under the Roadless Rule, other ancient forests are left open to possible logging, road building, and recreation that is incompatible with wilderness under this plan.
Worse, it also removes protections for the biggest trees (those over 21 inches in diameter) in favor of several loopholes that allow logging. The current policy recognizes that there are too few large trees left on the landscape after the history of logging across the landscape. For years, timber sale plans have been eroding these protections, but under the new plan, the “rule” protecting 21-inch trees is now just a suggestion.
In my time at Oregon Wild, I have worked extensively with colleagues on public comments that presented the science around forest and watershed protection and restoration when the Forest Service proposed reckless logging; and I’ve worked with Senator Wyden and other partners to craft legislation that would both protect ancient forests and prioritize restoration of the forests and watersheds of the region. Unfortunately, the new proposed management plan falls far short of prioritizing the type of restoration work that would chart a course towards modern forest management that places a high value on recreation, wildlife, adaptation to climate change, and the importance of wild lands protection.
As Oregon Wild and Mountaineers Books prepares to publish the hiking guide, I’m hopeful that the forests I explored - and recommend - will be just as lovely for those picking up the book next year as in twenty. Granted, forests change constantly (a theme well-explored in the upcoming book), but there’s something different about managers making a conscious decision to cut down big, ancient trees as opposed to nature taking its course. We can, and should, do better. Please join me and Oregon Wild in standing up for these forests today.