On August 11th, 2020 the Trump Administration and the Forest Service (USFS) put forward a proposal to eliminate and reduce protections for big and old trees in Eastern Oregon and parts of Southeast Washington. These protections, in place since 1994, are commonly called the Screens. The proposal would affect well over 9 million acres (>14,000 square miles) on 6 National Forests.
Below, please find some answers to a number of frequently asked questions and clarifications to misinformation surrounding this process. Please note that while some citations have been added, they are not exhaustive and remain a work in progress. Citations can be found here. If you find any factual errors, please let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org). This FAQ was written in 2020. Click here for updated information.
We also strongly recommend reading a letter signed by 115 independent scientists raising serious concerns about this effort as well as a scientific report that rebuts the USFS's biased and rushed scientific assessment.
Facts are facts, but where opinions are expressed here, they are those of Oregon Wild and do not necessarily represent those of any other organization. That includes the organizations that helped us create this document and have been working hard on this effort including, Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, Central Oregon LandWatch, CRAG Law Center, Greater Hells Canyon Council, and The Juniper Group of the Sierra Club. Please consider giving them your support. We also believe the perspectives of Indigenous People including the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) tribe should be given meaningful consideration.
For more timely information, you can find updates and other resources here.
- What are the Screens?
- Why are the Screens important?
- Everyone says old growth is important. Are big trees important too?
- Some people are concerned about “snags” what are they? Do dead trees have any value?
- Do we need to remove large trees?
- Are some species of trees better or more important than others?
- Some people say the Screens are too inflexible. Do they allow for exceptions?
- What did the Trump Administration and USFS propose?
- Why is this happening?
- I keep hearing that the Screens were meant to be temporary. Is that true?
- Critics of old growth protections say the Screens were arbitrary. Is that true? How were the original rules created?
- Are our forests unhealthy? If so, why?
- Specifically, aren’t Eastside forests too dense and homogeneous?
- We have to cut some trees, right?
- Don’t some conservation groups – like yours - support exceptions to the Screens?
- Is this an emergency?
- If we don’t log our forests and cut big trees, won’t they all burn up and die?
- But aren’t shade tolerant trees like Grand fir a fire hazard?
- Will this help reduce fire risk?
- Will this help rural Oregonians economically?
- Are there other consequences good or bad?
- How has the agency involved the public?
- Aren’t the USFS folks the experts?
- What does the science say?
- We’re in a climate crisis. What are the carbon implications?
- What’s next?
- What’s been the reaction from different stakeholders?
- What do conservationists want? Is there another way, or are conservationists just saying no?
- Are there other changes conservationists support?
- Will you sue? And if you do, how much money will you make?
- What do Oregon’s legislators think?
- Can citizens do anything?
1)What are the Screens?
The Screens prohibit trees over 21” in diameter at breast height (dbh) from being logged in the National Forests of Eastern Oregon and Washington that were not included in the Northwest Forest Plan. They are the most meaningful – and arguably only – protections for big and old trees in those places
2) Why are the Screens important?
After decades of unsustainable logging and other mismanagement, there was (and remains) a well-documented deficit of large and old trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington33. These rules protect the largest remaining trees and the values they support including wildlife habitat, soil health, clean cold water, carbon sequestration, climate stability, recreation, quality of life, and more.
The Screens were initially created to address the degradation of wildlife habitat. However, they’ve provided many other ecological benefits. In addition, the Screens also created the conditions that helped end the “timber wars”. By taking old growth and large tree logging off the table, the rules allowed stakeholders to focus in and try to find common ground. The agency also began to regain some public trust.
The Screens were urgently needed to halt the damage that had been - and was being done - to our public lands in the mid-1990’s. However, the deficit of large trees remains. Unfortunately, as private lands have been liquidated of their remaining large trees, the short-term economic incentives for the timber industry to log big trees from our public lands has only increased. Therefore, the need to protect big trees and the values they provide remains as strong as ever.
3) Everyone says old growth is important. Are big trees important too?
Yes. They are very important24,26.
There is a great deal of science that demonstrates the importance of both big and old trees. Especially in the absence of old growth which, by definition, didn’t return in 25 years, large trees provide the closest analog left on the landscape.
In the Northern Blue Mountains (and across the west), many species are known to be limited in population by the lack of sufficient large trees29,31, 32. There is some science that indicates some species like Goshawk may prefer large old trees to large young trees, but such a choice is rarely possible, and isn’t a documented preference for most species like bats, bears, or other birds who aren’t able to count tree rings before choosing where to nest, forage, roost, hide, or hibernate.
Big trees can also provide shade and cool down streams and air alike. They help maintain soil health, reduce erosion, sequester carbon and more. Big trees are especially valuable due to their relative lack of abundance and continue to provide value long after their death.
4) Some people are concerned about “snags” what are they? Do dead trees have any value?
Snags are standing dead trees. The timber industry has taken to calling them “zombie trees”, but they provide incredible and irreplaceable value. Many species from woodpeckers and bats to invertebrates and hibernating bears depend on snags for their survival. Even when they fall, dead trees provide wildlife habitat and food. They also return important nutrients to the soil.
Forests in Eastern Oregon are woefully deficient in snags due to past logging, firewood cutting, post-fire logging, and “hazard tree” removal. Due to a persistent fear of fire, many forests are also deficient in dead downed material that agency managers view only as fuel. Even so, as snags disappear on private lands, the role of public lands in providing this critical resource is only increasing30.
The Screens provide some protection for snags1,2 and help ensure a next generation of large snags is on the way. Large snags provide more benefits than small snags. If anything, the “snag standard” the USFS uses should be strengthened. The agency proposal (see below) goes in the opposite direction.
5) Do we need to remove large trees?
Except in extremely rare circumstances - which we’ll talk about later – no. And even where that’s the case, killing or felling large trees retains many benefits that are lost if they are sent to the mill and turned into plywood.
The USFS report on the Screens actually reaffirms the ecological importance of conserving large trees. Goals that the agency says they want to meet like changing species composition, reducing forest density and fuels, and increasing “resilience” (an often nebulously defined buzzword) can all be met by thinning small trees. Further, it’s not clear why those goals are any more important than the goals of protecting wildlife habitat, soil health, increasing carbon storage, etc.
6) Are some species of trees better or more important than others?
Different, yes. Better? That depends who you ask. Things look very different to an ecologist than they do to an accountant for a timber company. They’re certainly valued differently by a great gray owlet or a woodpecker!
All native species should be allowed to play their role in the ecosystem.
Aldo Leopold once said “the last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant ‘what good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good whether we understand it or not”
While most of the justifications for getting rid of these protections focus on Grand fir and, to a lesser extent, Doug Fir, the agency proposal for the Screens (scroll down for details) will allow logging of all species of large trees (including the stately ponderosa pine and the stout Western Larch).
More common on the west side, the iconic Doug fir is fire resilient and long-lived and provides tremendous ecological value in eastern Oregon forests. Though faster growing and shorter-lived, Grand fir are often fire resilient when they get large. In the absence of sufficient old growth, they are playing an important role for diverse species of wildlife. The very fact that they are generally fast growing and short-lived means that they play an especially important role in a landscape deficient of large and old trees.
As these photos show, there are lots of examples of the USFS logging large trees with the screens in place. Logging trees >21” dbh on public lands have been justified to protect human life (they could fall), save other large trees, for forest health, for fuels reduction, and more.
In 2015, a judge determined that the agency was abusing their discretion. In response, the USFS began enforcing the rule more strictly. That upset industry and industry advocates. Interestingly, the timber sale that led to the judge’s decision and was re-designed. The final project was better able to achieve the agency’s stated goals without logging large trees.
Notably, the Screens don’t prohibit logging of large trees on private lands. As the remaining large trees continue to disappear on private lands managed by timber companies, those companies are increasingly turning to public lands to sustain their operations.
8) What did the Trump Administration and USFS propose?
The proposal completely eliminates protections for most large trees under 30” dbh and 150 years old. If adopted, it would change protections for all other large and old trees from strong enforceable standards to squishy guidelines that use words like “the intent is…as much as possible…should retain…generally emphasize…”. The new guidelines would encourage the logging of large trees.
Though the rhetoric around this proposal is largely around fast growing trees like Grand Fir, large and old species of all kinds are affected and would be back on the chopping block. Forest scientists estimate this proposal would lead to a 20-35% reduction of old growth on the forest20.
The proposal also eliminates snag standards intended to ensure enough snags remain on the landscape now and into the future. This could have devastating effects for wildlife.
The agency is legally required to analyze a broad range of alternatives but chose not to even consider strengthening protections. They did consider an alternative that would eliminate the Screens entirely.
“To address the lack of public trust in the agency”, the USFS proposed “adaptive management” with almost no detail which ensures that even in a best case scenario, the damage will have been done before we begin to do anything about it, much less know about it.
The timber industry never liked the Screens or any prohibition on logging the biggest and most profitable trees. Politicians – especially rural county commissioners - and others eager to appease or who are sympathetic to the industry, have been on board.
Sadly, political pressure is also coming from the very top. Though more local staff are running the day-to-day, there is a great deal of evidence that this is being driven by political appointees of the Trump Administration and is being followed up with threats to ensure compliance21.
There is also an understandable tendency by agencies to give themselves as much discretion as possible. However, even under the current rules, we’ve seen that discretion abused. Increased ambiguity may provide discretion, but it only leads to more uncertainty, conflict, and controversy.
Though timber sales are now almost always justified as “restoration”, “fuels reduction”, or “safety projects”, agency staff are also instructed to meet arbitrary timber targets. In fact, their job performance (chance of promotions, salaries, etc.) are largely based on their ability to meet them. Logging large trees is the fastest way to get there as well as to satisfy the interests of industry and local politicians. They’re also the most valuable trees to timber corporations.
Logging big trees is often justified as helping “pay for” the parts of the project that may be less profitable. Sadly, in projects with such tradeoffs, the commercial logging almost always happens. The actual restoration parts are often not implemented which only serves to double down on the problems. We spent decades taking from the forest. It’s time to invest in them.
While it’s understandable that agency staff and leadership want maximum discretion, it’s a sure way to increase conflict and decrease public trust. Existing loopholes have already been abused regularly. Clear rules provide certainty while ambiguity breeds controversy and leaves the agency susceptible to ever-changing political winds. One bad decision will have consequences for decades – if not centuries. Logged trees can’t be unlogged.
Whether it’s clean water protections, the Endangered Species Act, mining in the Boundary Waters, or drilling in the arctic, The Trump administration has been eliminating environmental protections as fast as they can identify them. Seeing an opportunity, the timber industry and politicians including lame-duck congressman Greg Walden personally lobbied President Trump to eliminate the Screens before the end of his first (last?) term. There is ample evidence of political pressure being put on Regional Forest Service staff from Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue including threats to their job security if they don’t fall in line21.
10) I keep hearing that the Screens were meant to be temporary. Is that true?
It’s half true. But sometimes a half truth is more disingenuous than a lie. That’s the case here. The Screens were adopted as a placeholder until more comprehensive protections were put into place. That never happened.
Protecting large trees remains scientifically sound and critically important in lieu of that broken promise being fulfilled.
The Screens were put into place in response to a petition filed by NRDC that avoided costly litigation the agency was sure to lose. It occurred around the same time as the Northwest Forest Plan was put into place in the wetter forests of Western Oregon and Washington. In 1994, the Clinton Administration put the Screens in place until similarly holistic protections could be enacted in the very different and diverse forests of Eastern Oregon and Washington. That never happened.
Over the course of the next decade, the USFS developed the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, but never actually implemented the conservation measures that were studied.
11) Critics of old growth protections say the Screens were arbitrary. Is that true? How were the original rules created?
While the Trump administration proposal to amend the screens do appear to be ecologically arbitrary, the Screens are not. They were based in the best available science. Though the science has changed since that time, it still largely supports strong protections for large and old trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington
The USFS put the Screens in place to proactively avoid litigation. The Screens were largely based on scientific findings in a 1994 report to President Clinton and Congress3. The scientists came up with a number of recommendations including22:
- Cut no trees >20” dbh or >150 years old,
- Do not log in old growth forests,
- End livestock grazing in riparian areas,
- Do not log on fragile soils,
- Establish a panel of experts to develop long-term management guidelines
- Establish a second panel focused on ecological forest restoration and protection of living things and natural processes.
- Do not log or build roads in “Aquatic Diversity Management Areas”,
- Do not construct roads in unroaded areas,
- Establish protected corridors along waterways,
- Prohibit logging of (co)dominant ponderosa pine, and
- Prohibit logging in areas prone to landslides,
None of those things happened. Now the agency is essentially doing away with the one component that was adopted (which was less protective than the recommendation of scientists).
Under past pressure to weaken the Screens, Regional Forester Linda Goodman said “science findings…reinforce the importance of retaining and recruiting large, old trees in the eastside landscape…The objective of increasing the number of large trees and LOS [Large and Old structure] stands on the landscape remains.”
Even the USFS acknowledges a number of vital ecological functions provided by large trees would be degraded should increased logging of them be allowed. Independent scientists have raised serious concerns about the process, assumptions, biases, and conclusions the agency has produced under pressure from the administration16,17.
Many private forests have been horribly mismanaged – especially industrial timberlands owned by multi-billion dollar corporations like Hancock. Focusing on public Forest Service lands in Eastern Oregon, it’s a mixed bag. To the extent those lands have been degraded, it’s primarily due to unsustainable logging, fire suppression, over-grazing, invasive weeds, road building, other destructive development, and climate change. Weakening protections for large tree logging does nothing to address these fundamental concerns.
Despite this, our public lands remain the best strongholds for endangered fish, wildlife, and plants as well as old growth. They are also some of the best (and in many cases only reasonably accessible) places to find solitude and recreate. After decades of taking from our public lands, it’s time to protect the best of what’s left and invest in the appropriate ecological restoration of the rest. Sadly, congress has wildly defunded the agency which is increasingly focused on fire suppression, logging, and grazing. The agency is still institutionally dependent on timber harvest.
Forests are dynamic. Restoration implies a return to a more natural state. Legitimate restoration also includes the restoration of natural processes like fire.
Where our forests are in need of restoration, the medicine can’t be the same as the poison. Though most timber sales are now marketed as restoration or safety projects, those have become buzz words that are often code for business-as-usual. Some restoration projects can supply logs to mills, but logging is not in and of itself restoration. Logging does a very poor job of replicating nature which can do a lot of restoration. So too can controlled fire, road obliteration, culvert replacements, and more. Those activities also provide family-wage jobs that can’t be outsourced.
13) Specifically, aren’t Eastside forests too dense and homogeneous?
The landscapes of Eastern Oregon are tremendously diverse. While a stand of trees or particular forest may be different than it was in the past, Eastern Oregon’s forests are far from homogeneous. They range from dry open ponderosa pine forests to subalpine forests and wet forests full of old growth Doug fir dripping with moss that rival coast range rain forests.
The Screens have been in place for over 25 years. During that time, the USFS has implemented projects on hundreds of thousands of acres that were aimed at reducing density. Beetles, fires, wind, and other natural disturbance have also helped thin and diversify our forests – even if less so than in the millennia before colonialism. The vast majority of areas that arguably need density reduction or an increase in heterogeneity are dominated by trees that are too small to support profitable timber sales. Logging large trees is not an ecologically justifiable restoration priority in anything but extremely unique circumstances4.
Eastern Oregon forests have experienced “active management” (logging, fire suppression, development, livestock grazing, etc.) along with some natural disturbance for the last 100 years. Eastside forests have been modified by all this and while some patches may seem dense at certain scales, take a quick virtual tour via Google Earth, and the word “homogeneous” will almost certainly not come to mind. “Dense” likely won’t either if you include private lands in your tour.
14) We have to cut some trees, right?
Maybe. We still depend on wood products for building materials and other things. However, we can choose where that wood comes from. Ecologically, nature did fine without post-colonial chainsaw-driven management for a long time.
We’ve influenced nearly every acre of our landscape – some places more than others. We believe it makes sense to protect the biggest and best remaining parts of our forests and responsibly restore the rest as described elsewhere and with an eye towards restoring natural processes so future restoration is not necessary. There may also be places where it makes sense to do some thinning for human safety. However, none of that requires logging large trees.
There may be some places where we’ve put things so “out-of-whack” through things like logging, fire suppression, and overgrazing, that some thinning may make sense4 before allowing natural processes to take a larger role. However there is little to no ecological justification for cutting big and old trees – especially in the backcountry.
There are some non-ecological justifications for cutting trees such as creating defensible space around the ignition zones of homes and other structures, important egress routes, or hazard trees in campgrounds.
The only credible justifications for large tree logging at a significant scale are based on politics and profit.
In some cases, Oregon Wild has supported the cutting of large trees. But those were under very specific circumstances. This rule – and the rule change – applies to over 9 million acres with very diverse landscapes and social conditions. Using the willingness of some conservationists and scientists to support some narrow exceptions to justify undermining the rule writ large is shamelessly disingenuous and misleading.
So what are those narrow circumstances?
An example would be a place where a young (but large) shade tolerant tree like a grand fir has grown directly underneath an ancient Ponderosa Pine and the former is only there because of fire suppression or other human mismanagement. If that young tree could pose a risk to the ancient tree in a fire, it may make sense to drop it or kill it and turn it into a snag. There’s no ecological justification for taking it to the mill and turning it into particle board.
Limited and conditional support for cutting large trees has also been more possible where there is trust in the agency, assurances of active monitoring to determine if the objectives are met, strong social agreement between a truly representative group of stakeholders, as well as enforceable and unambiguous sideboards.
Over the years, under the Screens, the USFS has proposed and implemented many such site-specific exceptions. However, this proposal allows removal of large and old trees across over 9 million diverse acres and allows forest managers who are under tremendous pressure to “get the cut out” to target big trees with no legitimate ecological rationale or recourse for the broad public if the ambiguous amendment is adopted.
The USFS has been implementing the Screens and the 21” diameter limit for over 25 years. There is still a tremendous deficit in large and old trees – especially snags. As discussed elsewhere, science continues to demonstrate the importance of large and old trees for an increasing number of values.
The agency is however, treating this like an emergency by doing a rushed (and biased) scientific assessment, skipping key parts of normal public process, and not conducting a more robust analysis through an Environmental Impact Statement. In fact, the agency is disingenuously arguing this dramatic rule change on over 9 million acres is “narrow in scope”.
Further, against its own internal guidance, the USFS is ramming this through during a pandemic, social unrest, an economic crisis, and natural disasters in the region. With an election on the way, the only reason to rush this controversial decision is political.
If there is an emergency here, it's that we need to stop the USFS from logging the biggest and oldest trees remaining in Eastern Oregon!
Trees die. Forests don’t. Our forests have burned for millennia and they will continue to do so whether or not we continue to log. A recent “megafire” in Oregon jumped the Columbia River. Extremely aggressive logging did nothing to stop the recent Labor Day fires that were a human tragedy. In fact, those fires burned more intensely in the most heavily logged forests.
Large trees tend to be the most fire resistant, and shaded stands are generally cooler and wetter. So while some thinning near homes and communities may make sense from a public safety perspective, large scale logging - especially of large and old trees is likely to make problems worse.
Like other natural disturbance, fire is a critical and irreplaceable part of Oregon’s forests. An old growth forest is “recovering” from fire no more or less than one that burned a few months ago. Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s a fire deficit (from ongoing fire suppression) coupled with climate change, overgrazing, and logging that is the cause of most of the uncharacteristic wildfires in Eastern Oregon. Even now, wildfires in Oregon continue to exhibit an acceptable range of ecological effects with most being of mostly low and moderate severity5,6,7. Sadly, those are the fires we are very efficient at putting out which makes the bigger fires even bigger when they inevitably occur.
Many species of plants and animals depend on different stages of forest succession that only exist with disturbance. Cutting trees and sending them to mills does not replicate fire.
18) But aren’t shade tolerant trees like Grand fir a fire hazard?
In some areas, small shade tolerant trees are present in higher densities than they historically were due to ongoing fire suppression. These can create a higher likelihood for uncharacteristic fires. However, these trees can be removed using things like controlled fire, non-commercial thinning, and allowing natural processes to play out. This – and more – can all be done without amending the Screens.
Large shade tolerant trees can sometimes be less resilient to fire or carry fires when their branches extend to the ground. This is not always a problem, and where it is, it can be addressed by pruning lower branches or dropping them in the unique situations described elsewhere.
19) Will this help reduce fire risk?
First of all, as discussed elsewhere, fires aren’t all bad. Eastern Oregon forests are suffering from a fire deficit caused by past logging as well as ongoing livestock grazing and fire suppression. In many places the Forest Service proposal is likely to increase fire risk. The largest trees (even Grand fir) are generally the most resilient to fire and closed stands generally stay wetter longer than more open stands23,25.
Thinning small trees near communities and creating defensible space may make sense. Also, an argument can be made for dropping (not logging) a few larger trees in very unique circumstances. However, even these activities won’t radically change fire behavior of the big fires that people fear. If we want to reduce the risk from uncharacteristically large and damaging fires, we need to address climate change, allow natural disturbance to retake its role on the landscape, thin smaller trees near homes and communities, harden homes, and change development rules.
20) Will this help rural Oregonians economically?8,9,10,11
The timber industry is a mechanized and mature industry. Increasing the logging of large and old trees may mean more profits to shareholders and executives who generally don’t live in rural communities. It’s unlikely to help significantly buoy rural communities. Where rural communities are suffering economically, environmental protections often make a good scapegoat. However, the Screens aren’t the problem and there are demonstrably better alternatives than what extractive interests offer.
Despite its political clout and sometimes romanticized mystique, the timber industry makes a surprisingly small and declining contribution to Oregon’s overall economy. In rural communities, the boom and bust cycle of commercial logging has a destabilizing effect. Places like Portland, Eugene, Bend, and Joseph are historically timber-dependent towns, and if rural Oregon is going to thrive, returning to extractive boom and bust industries is not going to be a successful strategy.
Economic study after economic study has demonstrated that rural communities near protected public lands with more diverse and sustainable economic bases are far better off than those still tied to boom and bust extractive industries. Additionally, healthy intact forests work hard to provide important ecosystem services and increase health and quality of life which in turn do more to buoy local economies than 19th century industries with 21st century mechanization.
Some argue that even if it doesn’t provide many jobs, we need to support the timber industry to ensure we have the infrastructure and financing necessary for restoration. That argument lies on a number of assumptions that may or may not be true. However even if it is true, it doesn’t need to be an industry that depends on cutting large trees from public lands at high volumes. After decades of taking from our forests, it’s time to invest in them. The timber industry’s current infrastructure is not well-aligned with ecological restoration needs. At best, timber sales are a crude, outdated, and overused tool for restoration.
Non-commercial restoration and forest management practices (like road improvement and decommissioning, recreation infrastructure, prescribed burning, culvert replacement, invasive species removal, home hardening, grazing mitigation, and more) are far less dangerous and damaging activities, more reliable, and provide family wage jobs with dollars that are more likely to stay local.
Notably, the Screens were – and remain – a key part of what some described as a “truce” in the “timber wars”. They created the conditions that allowed the agency to regain some public trust and stakeholders to come together to try to find common ground. The controversial effort by this administration to weaken and eliminate protections for large and old trees has already led to divisions including the devolution of one formal collaborative group, conflict in others, and the marginalization in the eyes of many of one of Oregon’s most celebrated collaboratives.
22) How has the agency involved the public?
The development of this amendment is subject to the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For years, the USFS has been trying to find ways to minimize public involvement and scientific scrutiny. That process has accelerated under the Trump Administration. While the agency has tried to create the impression of robust public engagement and analysis on this project, they have gone to great – and novel - lengths to minimize both. It’s clearly been a process with a predetermined outcome.
A project of this size, scope, and potential impact requires development of a robust Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). However, the agency has insisted on doing a more superficial Environmental Assessment (EA). An increasing number of organizations (including those that want to see changes to the Screens) have asked the agency to conduct a more robust EIS.
Similarly, a decision that affects 6 diverse National Forests, a multitude of communities, and well over 14,000 square miles should be a regional or national decision. Instead, the agency has put the decision in the hands of a Supervisor of just a single forest near Bend. The only reasons for that decision appears to be to ensure any litigation or objection resolution will be more likely to be favorable to the agency.
Regardless of an EA, EIS, or even lesser levels of public involvement, the agency always starts with what is called a Scoping process. In “scoping”, the agency puts forward a “Purpose and Need” that identifies a purported problem and general ideas for a solution. Stakeholders are given an opportunity to share their top level concerns which the agency uses to determine how to proceed. In this case, the agency skipped scoping and instead proposed a solution in search of a problem without considering alternatives that the public might support.
The agency held three virtual workshops. A great deal of opposition to this process was on display from conservationists, citizens, and independent scientists14,16,17. Some of the meetings included some embarrassing missteps.
Long before those meetings, the Forest Service had been working closely with industry and select politicians. It wasn’t until the analysis and proposal had been largely developed that the agency began engaging with stakeholders who might have other perspectives.
Over strong objections, efforts were made to bring the controversial proposal to collaborative groups leading to a great deal of conflict and even the withdrawal of several groups from a dysfunctional collaborative in Northeast Oregon.
The agency also ignored its own internal guidance. A leaked memo showed the USFS was advising the agency to postpone projects like this during the pandemic unless they addressed an immediate economic need. Meanwhile USFS planners were telling the public this had nothing to do with politics or economics, and - rightly - if it did, the public would be right to reject it.
Of course, the nation has since become embroiled in a number of other crises that are distracting individuals, organizations, and governments alike. In allowing a short extension of the public comment period, the agency publicly cited the pandemic, but privately have been dismissive about all social justice concerns.
Unless directed by politicians, agency’s also generally try to avoid such major decisions prior to presidential elections.
In line with the Trump administration’s call to increase the pace and scale of logging, the agency put together a “rapid” – which is to say rushed – scientific assessment and allowed the minimum public comment period required by law. Once they heard overwhelming complaints, including from both of Oregon’s Senators, they extended the public comment period (just before the initial deadline).
23) Aren’t the USFS folks the experts?
There are lots of brilliant and well-intentioned folks who work at the Forest Service. However, they are not without their own biases, and are under tremendous political pressure from local politicians all the way to political appointees of the Trump Administration and their allies in industry. That’s a big reason we have laws like NEPA and EAJA which allows the public to hold the government accountable to its own laws.
24) What does the science say?
Independent scientists have raised serious concerns that were ignored and explicitly brushed aside by Trump’s Forest Service. That’s why over 100 scientists have signed a letter objecting to the analysis16. An independent scientific assessment was recently released that demonstrated the bias of the Forest Service’s rushed analysis and just how much science they chose to cast aside17.
25) We’re in a climate crisis. What are the carbon implications?12
The agency didn’t even bother to look at the carbon consequences.
A recent study by Oregon scientists found that the 3% of trees put at risk by this rule contain over 42% of the carbon stored in those forests. They went on to recommend that protections for large trees be strengthened and expanded!12 This proposal will contribute to our worsening climate crisis. And it will make our forests less resistant to climate change18.
The finding that larger trees (regardless of age) disproportionately sequester carbon has been found around the world27.Keeping standing trees standing is the best thing we can do to mitigate against climate change and a number of other important values28.
Logging is Oregon’s greatest contributor to climate change. While the state’s (and some of the world’s) biggest carbon sinks are in the wet forests of Western Oregon, the big and old trees of Eastern Oregon sequester a disproportionate amount of carbon. Logging releases far more carbon than it sequesters and far more than fires13 (which leave most of the carbon in the form of snags, dead downed wood, roots, and the soil).
Since no one can predict where or when wildfire will occur and we don’t have the resources to (nor should we) thin and regularly maintain every acre, fuel treatments always have a low probability of interacting with fire. With a low probability that any particular logging project will interact with fire and the certainty that it will result in carbon emissions, any fuel treatments should be focused around the ignition zones of homes and structures, egress routes, etc. And they should focus on the most fire prone (small) trees.
Even when logging can legitimately reduce fire risk, it’s important to remember that forests are dynamic. When a closed stand of large trees is “opened up” the stand may become drier and more fire prone23,25. Seedlings will become small trees that are much less fire resistant and sequester less carbon. While the USFS has a great track record in “getting the cut out” and suppressing beneficial small fires, future maintenance and non-commercial activities are often not implemented meaning even a short term gains often lead to greater risk in the long run.
Large trees are also generally more fire resistant than their smaller counterparts. Given their scarcity on the landscape, their retention also enhances ecosystem resilience – especially for wildlife. Managing for forest resilience depends on retaining large living and dead trees, not removing them. Even where there is direct competition between large trees, that competition can lead to increased vigor and greater resistance to stressors. Efforts to reduce climate stress can be accomplished by cutting trees under 21” in diameter.
26) What’s next?
Unless the USFS chooses to change course, the first – and only – formal public comment period will end on October 13, 2020. Even as that process is ongoing, the agency has begun developing a final decision. When a final decision comes out, those who submitted public comment during this window will have the standing to formally object. If those objections cannot be resolved those with standing will be left with two choices; 1) accept the decision or 2) go to court.
27) What’s been the reaction from different stakeholders?
Industry and rural politicians are thrilled. A few middle ground groups were initially cautious and have been raising increased concerns in response to the proposed amendment.
Though some initial token support from self-described conservation groups were used to make it seem the conservation community was divided, the mainstream conservation community expressed deep concern14 that has only solidified since the proposal was made public. That includes all the local conservation organizations in Eastern Oregon all the way up to big national groups like Earthjustice, NRDC, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians, and the Sierra Club among many others. Others expressing opposition have included public health organizations, independent scientists16,17, 20, and even the former Deputy Chief of the USFS15.
28) What do conservationists want? Is there another way, or are conservationists just saying no?
Public interest conservation groups like ours are driven by our missions. In our case, it’s to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife, and waters as an enduring legacy for future generations. We want to see protection of the best places that remain, and the restoration of those places that need it.
In this case, we want to see functional forests with all their parts. We want our National Forests to provide optimal ecosystems services such as abundant clean, cold water, carbon sequestration, fish & wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and a high quality of life. This can all be accomplished without cutting large trees or amending the screens.
Flanked by conservationists and the timber industry, in 2009, Senator Wyden unveiled comprehensive forest protection legislation for Oregon Wild. The timber industry reneged when politics changed and the bill never became law.
There is a history of support for common ground solutions. But in this case, the agency has refused to consider those.
All the local conservation groups in Eastern Oregon have been raising concerns about this process since the start. While the broader conservation community is increasingly united in opposition to this proposal, there are different views of what would be an ideal outcome. There has been past support for comprehensive reform that would fulfill the USFS’s unmet promise. In fact, we once got close with Senator Wyden’s “Eastside bill” in 2009. That bill had support from much (not all) of both the timber industry and conservationists. The public got ecologically science-based management of our National Forests with appropriate protections for intact landscapes, old growth, and other important values while the timber industry got more assurance of a predictable supply of materials without undermining bedrock environmental laws.
As described elsewhere, some groups – like ours – have also supported very narrowly tailored and enforceable exceptions. Unfortunately, the USFS chose not to even analyze alternatives that would be in-line with those past agreements or that most conservationists have said they could support.
The agency proposal is a slap in the face to those who have worked in good faith with the agency and stakeholders to find common ground for decades. Even so, we have spent hundreds of hours participating in this process as constructively as possible and stand ready to work with the agency, stakeholders, and other decision makers to find a solution that can be acceptable for everyone.
Ecologically, the agency is currently proposing a solution in search of a problem. Politically and socially, they have chosen timber industry interests over ecological and public interest. In the process they are undermining fragile public trust and the hard won gains of the last few decades.
29) Are there other changes conservationists support?
There are a variety of ways the Forest Service could improve their management practices to accomplish more effective restoration, achieve ecological goals, help local economies and quality of life, and increase public trust.
That can include explicit goals to maintain and increase forest carbon storage and harmonize climate mitigation and adaptation, increase protections for old growth and unroaded areas, restore functions including natural disturbance like fire, reform livestock grazing practices, focus fuels projects on thinning in the ignition zone of homes and other infrastructure or egress routes, rehabilitating and right-sizing the road system, in-stream restoration and holistic habitat restoration, increase resources directed towards sustainable recreation and recreation infrastructure, create new science-based snag standards, increase education and law enforcement, and more.
If the agency follows the law and does the right thing, we won’t go to court. Win or lose, we don’t make money. Litigation is expensive, time-intensive, and decidedly not fun. We always try to find common ground first. We’ve participated in this process in good faith, and done our best.
But, when it’s necessary, we fight like hell.
If we win, at best, our attorneys will be reimbursed. That happens thanks to important laws like the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) that make sure the public can hold their government accountable to its own laws regardless of their means.
Even so, the hundreds of hours our staff have put into this will not be compensated for. For that, we depend on donations from members of the public who support our work as well as grants and other gifts.
Did we mention that the organizations leading the charge on this are…
- Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project
- Central Oregon LandWatch
- CRAG Law Center
- Greater Hells Canyon Council
- Juniper Group, Sierra Club
- Oregon Wild
We'd also encourage folks to consider the perspectives of Indigenous People including the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) tribe who have lived on these landscapes since time immemorial.
31) What do Oregon’s legislators think?
We understand that lame-duck Congressman Greg Walden made a personal appeal to President Trump to get rid of the Screens as his legacy after 21 years in Congress. Some of his public statements have reinforced the validity of that story.
Senators Wyden and Merkley have not weighed in on the substance of this process, but did request the agency extend the public comment period by an additional 60 days (after consulting with staff in Washington, DC, it was extended 30 days). The two senators have opposed a number of other Trump environmental rollbacks and Senator Wyden has a long history working with stakeholders to find common ground on some of these issues.
We can’t match the money or the political capital the timber industry’s money buys. Our strength comes from the fact that we collectively represent tens of thousands (millions when you count all the signatories to the letter) of citizens who share our mission and 21st century conservation values.
In addition to supporting our organizations financially, you can submit comment on the project before October 13th.
Even once the comment period has ended, you can contact Senators Merkley (503.326.3386) and Wyden (503.326.7525). Thank them for asking the agency to slow down. Encourage them to stay involved and stand up for Eastern Oregon’s big and old trees. When you see stories about this in the news, write letters to the editor of your local paper in support of maintaining environmental protections and help rebut misinformation.
And please, stay involved, get on our email lists, and take action when they are needed.
We’re going to keep fighting. And we're going to need your support!