On May 10 and 11, two unseasonably warm spring days, more than 200 Oregon Wild supporters – from founding board members to business partners – celebrated our 50th Anniversary at gala events in Portland and Eugene. “Forest formal” attire; beer, wine, and cider from partner businesses; and a showcase of memorabilia and stories chronicling our history were on display. We also screened a brand new video celebrating our 50-year history and highlighting our resolve to keep fighting for wild nature into the future. 

Being an advocate for wildlands and wildlife in Oregon is not easy. And often, after a big win – designating a new Wilderness area or securing endangered species protections for at-risk wildlife – we just move on to the next fight rather than relishing our accomplishments and celebrating the people that made them happen. For a 20-year period starting in the late ‘70s, the Oregon Wilderness Conference provided a perfect venue to do just that. And during that time we handed out awards to dozens of individuals and organizations in recognition of their sacrifices for and dedication to the wild. 

On this occasion of our 50th anniversary, we wanted to return to that tradition and celebrate some of the conservation heroes among us, so in addition to celebrating our collective love of wild places and wildlife, the events’ program also recognized the dedication and accomplishments of some of the conservation heroes in our midst. Candice Guth, finance director at Oregon Wild for 17 years, received the Holly Jones Award for Organizational Development. Doug Heiken, a 30-year veteran on staff, received the Carol Alderson Award for Perseverance. Regna Merritt was awarded the William O. Douglas Award for Courage for her 20 years of work, including 10 at the helm, for Oregon Wild. Andy Kerr, legendary conservationist and director at Oregon Wild in the 1980s and ‘90s, received the David Simons Award for Vision. 

In addition, Ann Vileisis, a champion for the wild rivers and natural areas of the southern Oregon coast, was awarded the Tim Lillebo Wildlands Warrior Award.

Photos from both evenings can be found in this album. (Thanks to Curtis Smith and Chloe LaMonica for lending their photography skills to the cause!)

These grand events would not have been possible without generous sponsorships and beverage donations from Mahonia Reality (Seth Prickett), the Elizabeth G. Maughan Foundation, Killian Pacific, Wyld, B+B Print Source, Mountain Rose Herbs, Worthy Brewing, Fullerton Wines, Ninkasi Brewing, Avid Cider Co., Breakside Brewery, and Schilling Hard Cider. And a special thanks to Expedition Old Growth for donating two tree-climbing adventures to the evening’s raffle!

From all of us here at Oregon Wild, thanks to everyone involved in helping out, attending, and supporting these celebrations of our past, present, and future. Look for more opportunities to celebrate in communities around the state later this summer and fall!

Awarding a Wildlands Warrior

At Oregon Wild’s 50th Anniversary gala events in May, we announced the recipient of the 2024 Tim Lillebo Wildlands Warrior Award: Ann Vileisis. 

Ann Vileisis was originally nominated by Wendell Wood the first year we gave this award, in 2015. It was quite a lengthy nomination. He noted that, “as President of the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society, Ann has engaged in dozens of issues affecting her southern Oregon homeland.”  

He went on to list many of the campaigns and examples of Ann’s leadership, courage, and tenacity that I don’t have time to read through, but if it involves fighting for the wild places of the south coast, Ann has been there securing key support, organizing communities, and building alliances for places like the Copper Salmon Wilderness, the Wild and Scenic Chetco River, the salmon of Elk River, migrating birds, and botanical areas, and pushing back against damaging mining and development projects. 

Nearly a decade later, Ann is still the president of Kalmiopsis Audubon. She continues to be actively involved in protecting wild rivers on the south coast, advocating for mineral withdrawals from headwater streams, and organizing south coast communities to protect natural areas – including in her role as Port Orford City Councilor. She does nearly all of this as a volunteer.

Through all of this work, Ann brings a unique ability to communicate with all kinds of people – whether in the KAS newsletter, her three well-received books, at public hearings, or bringing individuals and institutions that have traditionally been hostile to conservation around to her cause. 

Wendell concluded his nomination with the following: “Being an effective conservation leader in a politically conservative, rural community is not an easy thing to do.  It is thus no exaggeration to say that conservation on the south coast of Oregon would scarcely exist without the fine work that Ann has done…  the inspiration she has provided for others will undoubtedly assure that the path she has blazed will continue to be followed by others.” 

In Ann’s acceptance remarks, she said: 
“Southwest Oregon, where I live, is a land of extraordinary wild rivers. The Wild and Scenic Rogue is the most renowned, but we’ve also got the crystal clear Elk, the Illinois, the Chetco, North Fork Smith and others —that flow from several rugged wilderness areas —the Kalmiopsis, Wild Rogue, Grassy Knob and Copper Salmon. 

These are inspiring places and I’ve been grateful for and also fortunate to know some some other special wild land warrior friends from the generation ahead of me who helped to protect them—the late great Wendell Wood, who I am sure many of you knew, and especially my dear friend Jim Rogers who we lost last year, he was well known as a timber industry guy turned conservationist—who really taught me the ropes of how to do conservation work in a rural community. I had the privilege to work closely with him on the effort to designate the Copper Salmon Wilderness to protect the old growth forests and salmon of the magnificent wild and scenic Elk River. 

They set a high bar and passed the baton —that I could not let drop!”

Ann noted that “to receive an award in the name of Tim Lillebo is truly humbling and inspiring.” 

For more than 40 years, Lillebo devoted his life to protecting and restoring the old-growth forests, rugged canyons, whitewater, and wildlife of Oregon. Upon his sudden passing 10 years ago, the Tim Lillebo Wildlands Warrior Award was born to honor his legacy. 

Read the recent article about Tim in the Sisters Nugget newspaper: “Ode to an old growth warrior” by Maret Pajute

Many remember Tim as gregarious and easy-going – the kind of person who made friends even with those who were staunchly opposed to his efforts to protect the wild. That memory of Tim is real. But at Oregon Wild, we also knew Tim to be a fierce and effective advocate for the Oregon he loved. We wanted the Tim Lillebo Wildlands Warrior Award to embody the spirit that Tim brought to his work for so many years. 

Past winners of the award truly did just that: Dave Willis, Francis Eatherington, and the late Mary Gautreaux. We’re pleased to add Ann Vileisis to this esteemed list. 

For nearly 30 years, the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) has directed management in National Forests in western Washington, Oregon, and northern California. A compromise enacted in 1994, the NWFP aimed to protect and restore old-growth forests and healthy stream habitat for threatened species, while still facilitating logging on public lands. Since the Plan came online, it has led to great progress in restoring some of the damage done by decades of unsustainable logging – protecting drinking water, keeping other wildlife off the endangered species list, restoring salmon runs, stabilizing the climate, and improving quality of life which is the foundation of the growing regional economy. 

While much has changed in the past few decades, the Plan left a million acres of mature and old-growth forest in areas open for logging, so there remains a compelling need for strong direction to protect forests for water, wildlife, carbon, wildfire resilience, and old forest protection and restoration.

What is the Northwest Forest Plan and why does it matter? 

The Northwest Forest Plan came into being after decades of unsustainable clearcutting and road-building radically altered forest ecosystems and watersheds and led to the Endangered Species Act listing of old-growth forest-dependent species the northern spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and many stocks of salmon. Covering 24 million acres of federal forests in western Washington, western Oregon, and northwestern California, the  NWFP attempted to strike a balance between logging and providing habitat for wildlife dependent on old-growth forests. The Plan defined areas for protecting and restoring old-growth habitat, set aside streamside areas to protect water quality and salmon habitat, and set strong standards for restoring forests and watersheds that were drastically damaged in previous decades. 

Key components of the plan included designating large “reserves” for protection and recovery of old forest habitat conditions, generous stream buffers to protect water quality and habitat, a requirement to survey and protect rare species that may be in the path of old-growth logging (called Survey & Manage), and “matrix” areas between reserves where more logging is allowed. 

The NWFP immediately slowed old-growth liquidation, brought improved management to federal forests within the range of the northern spotted owl, and in the 30 years that it has been in place there has been great progress in restoring some of the damage done by unsustainable logging of previous decades. Water quality and salmon habitat has improved, and the agencies are largely meeting their timber production targets by thinning in previously clearcut plantations rather than cutting mature and old-growth forests.  

However, the plan is far from perfect. Some of the last remaining older forests remain unprotected. Logging of mature and old-growth forests is still allowed in “matrix” areas, and the Forest Service is exploiting loopholes to allow logging of old forests even within reserves. Logging and road building is allowed in many ecologically critical areas, including municipal watersheds, unroaded areas, and complex young forests recovering from fire. It also placed high expectations on timber production from these public lands. 

Efforts to weaken the Northwest Forest Plan began as soon as it was finalized. When conservation groups used litigation to enforce the Survey & Manage Program, intended to protect rare species that live in old-growth, the Forest Service tried hard to weaken the rules. The Forest Service also sought to eliminate key aspects of the Aquatic Conservation Strategy under the plan, as well as efforts to weaken Endangered Species protections.  The most consequential attack came from timber interests that opposed forest and habitat protections on Western Oregon BLM lands. They claimed logging should be the primary use of these public lands. A lawsuit settlement, initiated under the George W Bush administration, led to a revision of the BLM’s management plans in 2016. The revision essentially removed 2 million acres from the conservation framework of the NWFP, shrinking riparian reserves to just half their previous size and allowing more intense logging both inside and outside both riparian reserve and late successional reserves.

Despite its origins in addressing threatened species habitat,  the NWFP has always been bigger than just the spotted owl. In defining areas for protection and setting strong standards for restoration, the NWFP has led to great progress in restoring some of the damage done by decades of unsustainable logging – protecting drinking water, keeping other wildlife off the endangered species list, restoring salmon runs, stabilizing the climate, and improving quality of life which is the foundation of the growing regional economy. 

A northern spotted owl in flight by Kristian Skybak

Amending the Northwest Forest Plan 

What’s changed?
Many things have changed since the Northwest Forest Plan was approved. To name a few:

  • The global climate crisis is upon us. We know a lot more today about the role forests play in sequestering and storing carbon, and in providing vital climate refugia and connections for wildlife. In the decades preceding the Northwest Forest Plan, liquidation of the carbon-rich old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest added significantly to the cumulative over-abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The plan reduced logging to such an extent that northwest forests switched from being a source of carbon emissions to become a net sink of carbon. This highlights that forests can be part of the climate problem or part of the climate solution. In addition to the carbon benefits, mature and old-growth forests also offer stable climate refugia for wildlife that are trying to contend with extremes of climate change.
  • There is no longer a social license to log mature & old-growth forests. This is reflected in the fact that on April 22, 2022 President Biden issued an executive order declaring a policy to conserve mature & old-growth forests on federal land and to manage forests to retain and enhance carbon storage. The agencies should immediately implement these policies.
  • The barred owl, originally from eastern North America, has invaded the entire range of the northern spotted owl, and now competes with spotted owls for food and territory. Biologists tell us that we need to protect more old forest habitat to increase the chances that these two owl species can co-exist.  
  • The timber industry has shifted to rely mostly on small second-growth logs and the broader economy has changed and diversified. The regional economy added far more jobs than were lost due to federal logging restrictions. The future of the regional economy depends much more on maintaining our unique quality of life, not logging our last mature and old-growth forests. 
  • Climate-driven drought, weather extremes, and the impacts of decades of fire exclusion and suppression has led to more severe wildfires that threaten communities and the natural role of fire in forests.
  • New science has confirmed the important role that mature and old-growth forests play in helping to stabilize water flows, which is critically important in an age of climate change. New science also shows that these forests are more resistant and resilient to wildfire compared to logged forests. 
  • Public lands legislation has protected some additional Wilderness areas, and policies like the Roadless Area Conservation Rule have protected intact forests in inventoried roadless areas, but many ecologically important smaller unroaded areas remain unprotected.
  • The NWFP was based on both Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Lands being managed under it, and BLM mature and old-growth forests being protected under its reserve system.  Subsequent decisions removed the BLM plans, and today the Forest Service needs to expand and strengthen its own reserve system to compensate.

While updates to address these changes may indeed be warranted given changed circumstances, it is important that key pieces of the original plan are not weakened through an amendment or revision process.

The Northwest Forest Plan attempted to balance conservation with logging

What’s going on?
In 2015, the Forest Service began considering if and how to revise management plans for national forests within the NWFP area. They held public listening sessions and completed an Assessment of the Management Situation and a Science Synthesis to inform the revision. The revision process was shelved during the Trump administration. In 2023, a federal advisory committee was convened to inform potential amendments to forest plans in Western Oregon, focusing on addressing wildfire risk, climate change, old-growth forests, tribal engagement, and rural communities and workforce.

The USFS has just released a notice with an amendment proposal. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the agency must provide the public an opportunity to comment on this proposal. Then, they must analyze the environmental impacts the amendments might have, as well as alternatives to their proposal. This analysis will then be available for further public review and comment. The USFS is aiming to complete the amendment by the end of 2024. 

Last month, the agency released a proposal to amend the Forest Plans for the region and they are asking for public input during the scoping period. 

While some of the proposal’s language could be interpreted as positive, much of it is dangerously vague and leaves a lot of room for Forest Service discretion that may actually weaken current protections. This is especially true in dryer forests, where we are concerned that the Forest Service is exploiting fear of fire as an excuse to log forests that evolved with fire, and that the plan amendment could lead to more logging of mature forest under the guise of fuel reduction. In addition, while the proposal acknowledges the need to address climate change and mentions President Biden’s Executive Order on this subject, the purposes section strangely doesn’t mention the urgent need for carbon storage or sequestration. 

The Northwest Forest Plan continues to be instrumental in keeping Oregon a special place through the restoration of forests and watersheds damaged by past logging and road building, recovery of economically valuable salmon runs, protection of wildlife habitat and old-growth forests, and ensuring our National Forests are part of a natural climate solution.

Oregon Wild has concerns that the Forest Service is using a rushed and abbreviated planning process for this amendment. This plan is important, and in order to maintain and strengthen its ecosystem-based conservation goals, the agency should use a transparent, science-based approach that includes and reflects public values, Tribal concerns, and the needs of future generations. 

In crafting an amendment to the plan, we hope the Forest Service will consider the following points: 

  • President Biden’s 2022 Executive Order on forests and the climate gave the Forest Service clear guidance that it should prioritize the protection and restoration of mature and old-growth forests (trees generally over 80 years old) across the nation as a natural carbon and climate solution. The Northwest Forest Plan governs the largest natural carbon reserves found anywhere in North America, and an amendment must recognize and safeguard the vast amount of carbon that can be sequestered and stored in these forests. The general direction to conserve trees over 80 years old in designated reserves has begun to reverse the loss of old-growth to logging, which in turn has turned PNW lands managed by the Forest Service from a carbon source to a carbon sink. However, not all of these older forests were protected under the plan, and every timber sale emits carbon to the atmosphere. The plan amendment should protect all mature and old-growth trees and forests.
  • Preserving biodiversity and connected wildlife habitat across the region should be a core principle of any forest plan revision. This includes not only threatened species, but others that have been impacted by the loss and fragmentation of their habitat, and those pending for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
  • Amendments should recognize the wide variety of social and economic benefits National Forests provide for local communities and the region as a whole, not just timber, but also clean water, climate stability, quality of life, and outdoor recreation.
  • In light of the removal of BLM forests’ removal from the Forest Plan’s regional reserve system, new information about the importance of older forests for the climate, and the ongoing needs of wildlife for connected habitat, any amendment to the plan should enhance protected, connected, and redundant reserves by including all mature and old-growth forests and core wildlife areas without roads (1000 acres or larger). The reserve network, including riparian reserves, should have clear and enforceable limits on logging and road impacts. 
  • Fire resistance and resilience can be bolstered by preserving and restoring mature and old-growth forests. Fuels and fire management should focus on the home ignition zone and on non-commercial treatments and beneficial fire use, not commercial logging. Commercial logging for fuel reduction can negatively impact wildlife habitat, remove large fire-resistant trees, and create hazardous fire conditions. Standards must ensure that fuel reduction is both needed and effective before logging is allowed.

In short, we need a strong forest plan that addresses modern science and public values, tribal concerns, and the needs of future generations. 

When you’re out enjoying the spectacular national forests in Oregon, you’re probably not thinking about laws passed decades ago to require forest plans for these areas. But these plans, and the subsequent standards, guidelines, designations, and policies they create, make a huge difference in what you’ll experience at your favorite trail, river, or picnic spot. They certainly affect the lives of the wildlife that call these places home, the fish that swim in the streams, and the plants that thrive in the forest soil. 

One of my favorite trails is tucked away in the central Coast Range, along the North Fork Smith River. The trail takes you through a steep river canyon, past enormous Douglas-fir, moss-draped bigleaf maples, and waterfalls. This area of the Siuslaw National Forest is home to threatened and rare wildlife species (from salamanders to owls), and it is designated as a Special Interest Area and Late Successional Reserve under the forest’s Management Plan and the famous Northwest Forest Plan. 

The Forest Service is planning a logging project here that might be incredibly concerning if not for the constraints of these plans – namely, ensuring that management focuses exclusively on thinning young plantations for the purpose of restoring old-growth and riparian forest habitat that help threatened species. 

In far Eastern Oregon, there is another forested corridor – one that connects Hells Canyon to the Eagle Cap Wilderness. This part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest has been identified by scientists as one of the most important and irreplaceable connectivity corridors on the continent. The landscape here is about as diverse and spectacular as it gets. When I first visited, I camped along Lick Creek. I was struck by the majesty of the mountain views, the huge scattered ponderosa pines, and dense stands of fir, larch, and spruce. I saw evidence of natural regrowth after fire. I heard my first wolf howl and saw wild salmon in the stream. 

The diverse forest landscape in northeast Oregon can change dramatically under forest plan amendments that may apply to large projects like Morgan Nesbit.

What is a forest plan?

Every national forest has a guiding management plan, as required under the National Forest Management Act. In Oregon, most of these plans were completed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when logging, roading, grazing, and mining had already fragmented most intact blocks of habitat and cut down most large and old trees over a vast landscape. These forest plans aspired to break with the destructive activities of the past and envision more “sustainable” management. Though they have often fallen short of their aspirations, these new forest plans did start to consider uses that weren’t exclusively extractive. They outlined management guidelines and direction for everything from recreation, logging, Wilderness designations, wildlife needs, and other public values – kind of like a zoning plan for a forest. Plans were intended to be revised every 15 years or when conditions significantly change. Small amendments can be made in the interim.  

Today, revisions and amendments are underway to make substantial, and potentially detrimental, changes to forest plans that touch nearly every national forest in Oregon, from the iconic Northwest Forest Plan to northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains. 

The Northwest Forest Plan 

In Western Oregon, initial forest management plans saw major new developments almost immediately when, after decades of habitat destruction, northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, and salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was developed as an attempt to strike a balance between logging and protecting habitat. In 1994, the NWFP amended plans for the Siuslaw, Mount Hood, Willamette, Umpqua, Rogue River-Siskiyou, and Deschutes National Forests, as well as Bureau of Land Management lands within the range of the northern spotted owl.

However, the NWFP has always been bigger than just one species. In defining areas for protection and setting strong standards for restoration, the NWFP has led to great progress in restoring some of the damage done by decades of unsustainable logging – protecting drinking water, keeping other wildlife off the endangered species list, restoring salmon runs, stabilizing the climate, and improving quality of life which is the foundation of the growing regional economy. 

Efforts to weaken the Northwest Forest Plan began as soon as it was finalized. The most consequential attack came from timber interests that opposed forest and habitat protections on Western Oregon BLM lands. They claimed logging should be the primary use of these public lands. A lawsuit settlement, initiated under the George W Bush administration, led to a revision of the BLM’s management plans in 2016. The revision essentially removed 2 million acres from the conservation framework of the NWFP, allowing more intense logging and shrinking reserves.

In 2015, the Forest Service began considering if and how to revise management plans for national forests within the NWFP area, but the revision process was shelved during the Trump administration. Now, a federal advisory committee has been convened to inform potential amendments to forest plans in Western Oregon, focusing on addressing wildfire risk, climate change, old-growth forests, tribal engagement, and rural communities and workforce.

Blue Mountains Forest Plans

Major adjustments had to be made to Eastern Oregon’s forest plans around the same time as the Northwest Forest Plan. Recognizing the need to address the rampant degradation of wildlife habitat across the region, the Eastside Screens were put in place. Among efforts to maintain wildlife habitat, the Screens protected trees 21 inches in diameter or larger. These protections have many ecological benefits, and they also helped focus the agency and communities on building common ground, rather than fighting over old-growth logging. 

Forest plans may indicate areas dedicated to protecting wildlife habitat, like here in the Blue Mountains.

Covering 5.5 million acres, the three National Forests of Eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains – the Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman – have been grouped together for revision. Starting in the early 2000s, a series of failed efforts at plan revisions have provided a sneak peek of the agency’s intentions. In those previous processes, the Forest Service had an opportunity to find a balance that protected undeveloped areas, embraced new science, and brought management of these public lands in line with the modern era. Instead, their proposals adopted an outdated vision of rural economics by prioritizing extractive industries like logging and livestock, while de-emphasizing the importance of natural and cultural values like clean water, recreation, salmon, wildlife, quality of life, and carbon storage.

The Forest Service has re-initiated a new revision process for the Blue Mountains very much in character with their previous attempts. A lot is at stake in this incredibly diverse region identified by scientists as being of global importance for wildlife connectivity and carbon storage. These forests have long been subject to logging, excessive road building, overgrazing, and the exclusion of natural fires. Their recovery from past abuse, and the promise of a healthy future – for the forests, streams, wildlife, and people who depend on this landscape – hangs on a new plan’s outcome.

A huge project covering 87,000 acres, called Morgan Nesbit, is being planned here under the guidance of the 30-year-old Forest Management Plan. In contrast to the constraints embraced by the Siuslaw National Forest, a proposed amendment to the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Plan would allow logging of steep slopes and the largest 3% of trees that remain.

Forest plans lay out where timber harvest is allowed and for what purposes. This timber sale marker on the Willamette National Forest was, unfortunately, in a mature forest.

Limits and opportunities 

While forest plans are incredibly consequential, they’re rarely perfect. Most are a compromise. For example, the Northwest Forest Plan, though celebrated for providing some protections for wildlife habitat and ancient forests, still allowed logging and road building in ecologically critical areas and did not fully protect mature and old-growth forests. 

Forest plans are also subject to amendments and rule changes, directed by changing presidential administrations and agency discretion. The NWFP area saw rule changes that increased logging under the Bush administration. In Eastern Oregon, piecemeal amendments are often made to accommodate logging the largest trees under the guise of “restoration” and fuel reduction. The Trump administration tried to do away with those protections entirely. 

Revisions and amendments to forest plans can be a good opportunity to reflect evolving public values and offer beneficial guidance for managing our public lands for clean water, natural ecosystems, wildlife connectivity, climate stability, fire resilience, and more.  Rather than loosening standards, what we need from forest plans are more enforceable sideboards that ensure the protection of large trees and mature forests, water, and connected wildlife habitat. They should make the case for Wilderness or Wild and Scenic River protection, and set the stage for the landscape-scale preservation of natural areas and restoration of ecosystems necessary to address the dual climate and biodiversity crises and help meet national land and water conservation goals. Destructive activities like commercial logging, livestock grazing, backcountry fire suppression, and maintaining high road densities should be reduced.

With these sideboards in place, the Forest Service can focus on real restoration of watersheds that prepare for the return of salmon to their native streams, connecting habitats for species that need to migrate to adapt to climate change, and enhancing habitat degraded by mismanagement. But given the process and outcomes we’ve seen from recent revision efforts that always seem to move toward greater agency discretion and less conservation, it’s hard to feel optimistic that the Forest Service is heading in that direction.

This is why, at the same time, we need strong Administrative direction and durable protections for the landscapes, forests, and waterways that are so important for the future of biodiversity and a livable planet. To achieve this, Oregon Wild’s ongoing campaigns can complement and direct where forest plans go.

  • Our Climate Forest Campaign is working to create a strong national rule to ensure forest plans protect mature and old-growth forests. Without a rule, the Forest Service has struggled to implement the vision of President Biden to protect these forests as a climate solution, and instead continues to plan and implement destructive logging projects across the country.
  • With the Nez Perce Tribe and other conservation allies, we went to court and defeated an illegal effort to undermine forest plan protections for the largest 3% of trees left in Eastern Oregon. Now we’re working together to scale back piecemeal amendments to allow destructive logging proposals like Morgan Nesbit.
  • We are working to pass Wilderness and Wild & Scenic River designations across the state. These are the best ways to protect Oregon’s remaining wildlands and waters for their many ecological and cultural values. Forest plans can ensure these areas are not degraded and support the case for their permanent protection until legislation is passed. 

Together, we have a long history of speaking up for our vision and values. We’ll be counting on you to let the Forest Service and elected leaders know what you value about our national forests and public lands.

Waldo Lake and the forests and trails all around it is one of my “happy places.” Every summer, I love to paddle and swim in the clear, deep blue water and pick huckleberries for camp breakfast. I’ve hiked through the young forest on the north side of the lake, recovering slowly from the Charlton Fire that severely burned the high-elevation area. And I included the Black Creek trail, leading from the west side of the Waldo Lake Wilderness through diverse forests to the edge of the lake, in my ancient forest hiking guide. 

"Paddling on Waldo Lake"
The clear waters of Waldo Lake make for amazing paddling and swimming.

I’m not the only one. The natural beauty and diversity of the area, and relative accessibility from major roads and nearby communities has made Waldo Lake and its watershed a popular (and booming) recreation destination – from mountain biking to backpacking to paddling.

Initial protection efforts for the area were driven by the urge to safeguard the unique and pristine waters of Waldo Lake, but efforts to protect the wild and diverse forests surrounding the lake were also active. The Waldo Lake Wilderness was established in 1984, and subsequent codifications of the Roadless Rule ensured even more wild lands in this spectacular landscape had protections from logging and road building – though much had already fragmented the surrounding Willamette National Forest. The North Fork Middle Fork Willamette River – from its source on the north end of Waldo Lake downstream 42 miles – was designated as a Wild & Scenic River in 1988. Superlatives abound. 

"Map of Cedar Creek Fire and unroaded or Wilderness lands" Fire has been no stranger in this rugged and diverse landscape. Historic fires shaped the high-elevation subalpine forests around Waldo Lake and the moist Douglas-fir, hemlock, and cedar forests downstream in the North Fork Middle Fork and Salt Creek watersheds for millennia. In recent years, the Warner Creek Fire burned the area around Bunchgrass Ridge in 1991 (sparking a protest and movement against post-fire logging), the 1996 Charlton Fire burned the north side of Waldo Lake, and several other small lightening-caused fires have burned in patches all around. These fires left natural legacies behind – charred snags, down logs, and remnant living trees – to form the base for rebuilding soil, wildlife habitat, and the next forest generation. 

When a lightning strike started a fire on Koch Mountain on August 1, 2022, near the headwaters of Black Creek on the west side of the lake, of course I paid attention. On August 6, I watched smoke rise from where I camped with my family, and wondered what would happen to some of my favorite places and trails. 

"North end of Waldo Lake and Charlton Fire"
The north end of Waldo Lake and the scar of the Charlton Fire, reburned by the Cedar Creek Fire.

The fire burned in the steep terrain on the edge of the Wilderness for a few weeks. Firefighters were cautious in the steep terrain, and sensitive to the wild landscape and ecosystem. The fire  might well have fizzled out without reaching the lake or threatening nearby Oakridge were it not for a strong wind event at the peak of the hot, dry summer, which drove the fire north and east across the old Charlton burn, then west towards town – encompassing the Warner Creek fire area as well. In the end, the Cedar Creek fire impacted 127,000 acres, (including areas intentionally burned by firefighters to control the fire’s spread).

I didn’t get a chance to see the fire’s aftermath until nearly a year later. In July, I arranged a flight with LightHawk – a non-profit organization that pairs volunteer pilots with conservation groups – and my colleague Tim Ingalsbee with FUSEE (Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology). 

Tim is hardly a stranger to this landscape. He was one of the protesters who stopped planned post-fire logging in the Warner Creek Fire area, and he has a long history of activism promoting natural fire recovery and sound fire policy. He was interested to see the effects of this fire on the Warner Creek area so near and dear to his heart.  

Michael Sherman with Spring Fed Media also joined us to document the flight. (See linked videos below)

What we saw was emotional. On the way, we flew over the Holiday Farm Fire area in the McKenzie watershed. Much of that fire burned over private industrial timber lands, where young plantations burned fast and hot, and where any burned trees still standing were logged as soon as possible. The landscape was stark – while fire impacts from this 2020 fire are quite visible, the impacts of industrial clearcutting and roads on the landscape takes it to a new level. 

"Private land above the McKenzie River"
Private land, with roads and clearcuts, above the McKenzie River in the Holiday Farm Fire area.

Once over the Willamette National Forest and the fresher Cedar Creek Fire, emotions shifted to the places I knew and loved. There was the outlet of the North Fork Middle Fork River, and the Charlton Fire – many of the legacies from 25 years ago turned to ash and the small recovering trees largely gone. There was the North Waldo Campground, where I started my first solo backpack trip in 2021 – with many burned trees but still clear blue water. And there, the Black Creek Canyon – a clear mix of fire severity, even where the fire burned for weeks, old-growth trees still green and standing tall. Over Bunchgrass Ridge, where the Warner Creek Fire burned, some of the young trees – regrowing for the past 20 years – with nothing left but their small trunks, while snags from the first fire still stand sentinel for this next round of regrowth. 

As we flew toward Oakridge, smoke from the recently-started Bedrock Fire in a nearby drainage was smothering the low-elevation hills and obscuring our view. 

"Burned trees, snags, and down logs in the Cedar Creek Fire"
Burned trees, snags, and down logs are important legacy structures for soil and wildlife.

A few months later, I finally had the chance to drive up into part of the fire area to get a closer view. The story on the ground was also one of a mix of burn severity and impact. Some areas were completely blackened – thin-barked mountain hemlock and fir trees were but standing husks, old snags and down logs converted to charcoal to feed the soil. There were also plenty of green patches that the fire didn’t touch, providing seed sources and shade for nearby burned areas. 

I also saw up-close what firefighting efforts can do on the ground and the limits to human intervention and prediction in these forces of nature: swaths of forest bulldozed as a fire line – sometimes clearly adjacent to the fire (or intentionally burned to reduce fuels – a common tactic) but others surrounded by green where the fire didn’t touch. Unfortunately, these activities left unnatural scars on the landscape.

The Willamette National Forest is not planning a massive post-fire logging operation in the Cedar Creek fire area. But some roadside tree removal is 

"Trees burned along roadside in Cedar Creek Fire"
Some burned old-growth trees close to roads may be in danger of being cut as “hazard trees”.

proposed, and I made note of burned old-growth trees – legacies for the next generation of forest – that might be in the path of such logging. We’ll be watching proposals here carefully, urging the Forest Service to only do what is necessary, and to preserve forest legacies across this landscape. 

What I saw from the air and the ground affirmed what I know about fire ecology from years of study and observation. Standing dead and downed trees are hanging on to the majority of the carbon they stored over many years, fresh growth is already coming back to become forage for deer and elk, birds and other wildlife are still using the burned areas, and there is added diversity in vegetation and forest structures.

What I saw also affirmed what I know about the importance of public lands. In the protected areas surrounding Waldo Lake, and within the bounds of Willamette National Forest, there is an opportunity for natural recovery of this burned landscape – standing in stark contrast to the private industrial lands where legacies were stripped away to move forward with another tree crop. 

We can’t log our way out of fires like this. We can’t even fight our way out of fires. We’ve seen again and again that fuel breaks and fire lines in the backcountry can’t stop wind-driven fire events. What we can do is address climate change and the conditions that drive hotter, dryer summers, stress native vegetation, and lead to bigger, more severe fires. 

We can also prepare our communities for the reality of climate-driven fires, investing in safe shelters and reducing the chances of home ignitions through home hardening and reducing fuels close to homes.  As the state moves forwards with landscape level strategies for addressing fire risk, funding needs to be directed to real solutions – for the climate and for communities.

Watch four short videos about the Cedar Creek Fire and our overflight 

A 22-square-mile clearcut.

That’s what I saw when I looked out the window of the small plane I was riding in, a Lighthawk-sponsored flight over the private logging lands bordering the Willamette National Forest. I didn’t know the exact size at the time; all I could do was react to the scale of logging. In my two decades doing conservation work in Oregon, I’d never seen such a large landscape denuded of trees.

Little did I know, this was not even the largest clearcut in Oregon. But more on that later.

After sharing my photos from the flight, Oregon Wild’s resident GIS and mapping expert Erik Fernandez found the clearcut on mapping and satellite tools and outlined its full size: 14,300 contiguous acres, 8 miles across at its largest point, right above the McKenzie River.

The clearcut is owned, almost entirely, by Campbell Global, a timberland investing group acquired by JP Morgan in 2021. Ironically, the acquisition was touted in their press release as a green investment – that the forestlands would be managed with an eye toward carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and sustainable forestry.

That 22 square mile clearcut, mostly hidden in the hills where most people would never see it, tells quite a different story than the one JP Morgan told on the sustainability pages of their website. 85% of the carbon stored by trees is lost when they are logged and processed, not to mention the damage to soil, plant species, wildlife habitat, drinking water, and more. This clearcut will be replanted as a tree farm, sprayed with pesticides, and logged again in just a few short decades, never allowed to become a true forest again.

Now for the big news: When searching for the clearcut I’d seen from the air, the one we thought was the largest in Oregon, Erik found another, even larger one. 

At a staggering 42 square miles, this clearcut is nestled into the hills around the North Umpqua River. 

It is roughly the same size as the City of Eugene. Unlike JP Morgan’s clearcut, this one has a variety of owners, including Roseburg Forest Products, Mount Scott Holdings, and Weyerhaeuser. 

So, why are these clearcuts allowed to be so big?

While Oregon’s Forest Practices Act limits clearcuts to 120 acres, and now offers some protections for streams and headwaters, most of those rules get thrown out the window when there is a disturbance – in this case, the 2020 wildfires. While you can clearly see that vast tracts of forest survived those fires, logging companies (and Wall Street investment firms) used the aftermath of the 2020 wildfires to clearcut with abandon, stringing together cuts with areas that had been logged before the fires to create massive areas denuded of trees.

@oregonwildconservation Oregon’s largest clearcut is the same size as its 3rd largest city, Eugene. We were able to map these clear cuts thanks to our GIS Expert, Erik. These two cuts lie just out of the public’s view about the hillside near the McKenzie River and The North Umpqua River. Our goal is to bring attention to these and other clear cuts so that the public knows what may be affecting their environment and water. For updates on Oregon’s forest and water policies, sign up for alerts. Link in our bio! #logging #clearcut #oregon #pnw #gis #mapping #conservation #forests #climateaction #pnwlife #optoutside #environment ♬ Autumn Leaves – Timothy Cole

These clearcuts also illustrated a stark difference I saw from my Lighthawk flight: public vs private industrial lands. While the private tree farms had been liquidated, living and dead trees still stood across the Willamette National Forest. In these areas, there is thriving habitat for certain plants and animals that rely on post-fire landscapes to survive. And the unlogged areas will also grow back into a healthier and more diverse forest than the re-planted monoculture on adjoining private lands. The soil will be stabilized by the roots of living trees, snags, and the lush undergrowth that returns to an open-canopy forest. Lastly, carbon stored in both the living and dead trees on our public lands will stay on the landscape for decades, helping us fight climate change.

While I was horrified by the extent of greed I saw from my flight, and saddened by some of the special places that the 2020 fires had changed, I was also thankful for our public lands where the forest – in all its natural and wonderful diversity – remains.

On a cold foggy recent day, Casey Kulla and I drove up to Unit 1 of the Bureau of Land Management’s Lookout Below logging sale within the Panther Creek project area. The scene was a stunning rebuke to those who insist that clearcutting no longer occurs on federal public lands. In fact, at 150 acres, this “regeneration harvest” unit was larger than the maximum allowable size for private industrial clearcuts (which happen regularly on surrounding lands).

But the clearcutting was only part of the tragedy of this once-forest.

Accessed by a road long-gated to public use, High Heaven Road winds out of McMinnville into the checkerboard of rural properties, industrial timber lands, and federal forests managed by the Bureau of Land Management that cover the eastern flanks of the Coast Range. Trails used by local hunters, hikers, and foragers wind through the woods nearby.

When the BLM proposed the Panther Creek project in late 2018, Oregon Wild commented and raised concerns over the aggressive logging’s impacts on streams, natural forest structure, wildlife, and the climate. We noted that mature forests in this area are rare, while young replanted plantations are in abundance. The agency did not alter their project in response, and eventually authorized 800 acres of logging within what the BLM calls their “harvest land base” and within riparian reserves (areas supposedly designated to protect streams and wetlands from industrial logging). Over 400 acres of that is so-called “regeneration harvest” (aka, clearcutting) of forest stands up to 114 years old, in addition to commercial thinning in plantations.

In the timber sale plan, only 13% of the roughly 60-year-old plantation forest was to be retained, mostly in clumps, in the unit. The area was logged and replanted last year, but as this winter’s storms hit, many of the trees that remained in these clumps, called “leave islands,” were toppled by the wind. They had been weakened from years of growing in an overcrowded plantation, were top-heavy, and brutally exposed to the elements after the surrounding hillslope was clearcut in this sale.

Wind storms are difficult to predict but not unexpected in the Coast Range, and this blow-down event (adding insult to injury in this clearcut forest landscape) may have been avoided by careful thinning of the forest or retaining more trees scattered in the logging area instead of clearcutting. The BLM chose to pursue this more aggressive logging approach over thinning in order to meet the timber harvest quota set by its management plan, despite the added negative ecological impacts. This drive for production has led to this forest missing even more of the carbon storing, wildlife habitat providing, water filtering trees the BLM said would be retained.

As the BLM continues to plan and implement timber sales that target mature forests with aggressive methods, Oregon Wild and our partners are working to highlight the flagrant violation of President Biden’s Executive Order issued last April which called on federal agencies- including the BLM – to protect mature and old growth forests amid mounting scientific evidence of the importance of these forests for our climate. 

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