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‘Old growth’ or not? Oregon Wild, Forest Service face off over logging plans near Phil’s Trail

(Update: Adding video, comments from Oregon Wild, Forest Service, Deschutes Forest Collaborative Project)

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The environmental group Oregon Wild sounded the alarm Friday and started a petition, claiming the Forest Service is pushing ahead with what's become a controversial plan to log some of the last remaining old-growth trees in the popular Phil's trail area west of Bend.

Erik Fernandez is a wilderness program manager with Oregon Wild, and he’s taken some issues with the plan. 

“That's really disappointing, to see these are some of the last big old trees we have,” Fernandez told NewsChannel 21 at the site. 

The group made public a petition Friday to convince the Forest Service not to allow logging of what they believe are “old-growth” trees near Phil's Trail. The definition of "old growth" is an old argument of sorts, from decades of what became known as the "timber wars."

And in this case, according to Jean Nelson-Dean, the public affairs officer with the Forest Service, he’s not exactly right.

“They feel they are old growth trees," she said, but to the Forest Service, "they do not demonstrate what are considered the characteristics of old growth Ponderosa pine.”

Nelson-Dean said roughly five or six trees were marked with blue paint in 2019, as part of an environmental analysis. 

The Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project, chaired by Bend Mayor Sally Russell and Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang, visited the area last month and later said found these trees are "larger and older" than the trees "all stakeholders have agreed are appropriate for removal."

Project representatives said they do "not feel that the mark in this unit was consistent with the overall vision."

The logging of these pines is part of the West Bend Project, a multi-faceted effort to reduce wildfire danger.

But Fernandez doesn’t see it that way.

“With this project, the public has been told this is all about fire risk reduction and fuels reduction -- and yet they’re going to be cutting the most fire resistant trees, these old-growth trees that have the thick bark that protects them from fire,” Fernandez said. 

Nelson-Dean understands the idea, but said it’s more complicated. 

 “Younger trees are going to be more vulnerable to fire,” Nelson-Dean said. “That doesn’t necessarily make these trees ‘old growth’.”

The timber from these larger trees has already been purchased. 

Fernandez said, “Now there's not as much money to be made in cutting down those small trees, and there's the rub.”  

But Nelson-Dean disputed that it's all about timber revenue, from the Forest Service perspective.

“That’s not how we operate,” Nelson-Dean said. “There's no particular advantage to us within the Forest Service either way.”

Nelson-Dean said she understands the group's frustration, and said the Forest Service wants to work with the public on future projects, as long as talks begin before the trees are sold.

“This didn’t meet your expectations -- we didn’t meet your expectations for what you wanted,” Nelson-Dean said of the message to those in the collaborative project. “Let’s talk about that and see what we can do and we need to do it before the timber sale gets sold.”

Here's the response statement issued Friday by the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project co-chairs and Vice Chair Ed Keith:

Longtime stakeholders of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project (DCFP) have raised concerns about some larger trees marked for commercial thinning within the West Bend project on the Deschutes National Forest. (The trees in question are within Unit 5 of the Euro stewardship contract). 

Both the Forest Service’s West Bend NEPA planning document and the DCFP’s recommendations for restoration in dry Ponderosa pine forests reflect a desire to promote more large and old tree structure in open stands – a stand condition that we have a deficit of since the aggressive old-growth logging and fire suppression of the early and mid 1900s in the region.

After hearing about the tree marking in this unit within the West Bend Project, the Steering Committee of the collaborative did a field trip in late February to review the unit. We found that there were trees marked for removal that were larger and older than the typical 60-80 year old second growth ponderosa pine that all stakeholders have agreed are appropriate for removal in order to bring densities to sustainable levels and to accelerate the growth of remaining trees. The trees in question were not necessarily old-growth, but were older and larger than the standard “black bark” trees (60-80 years old) that are very common throughout the West Bend Project. 

A number of DCFP Steering Committee members did not feel that the mark in this unit was consistent with the overall vision of the West Bend NEPA document or the DCFP recommendations and suggested that retaining the oldest and largest trees would move these stands towards the desired condition of large and old pine in open stands faster. During the field trip, we begun the discussion of how our recommendations and monitoring processes within the Collaborative and how the process of translating planning to implementation within the Forest Service could be refined to reduce the likelihood of marking that does not match our shared vision in the future. 

For context, within the West Bend Project there were 14,500 acres of commercial treatments with fuels reduction planned. The majority of those acres have been implemented at this point and the DCFP has tracked that implementation closely through the years. Within the 14,500 treated acres, we can only point to about 10 acres where we had concerns that trees inconsistent with our vision were being removed. In the ideal world, that number would be 0 acres, but if 99 percent of the acres commercially thinned are moving our forest in the right direction, then we don’t think it is appropriate to vilify the Forest Service for the 10 acres which could be inconsistent with the overall intent and vision of the DCFP.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

The DCFP Steering Committee will reconvene on Tuesday to continue our discussion of how to refine our and the Forest Service’s processes to ensure that even higher percentages of implemented treatments meet our vision.       

For more on the history and goals of the West Bend Project and the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project’s work on it, please see a letter to the editor written by the Deschutes Collaborative Steering Committee in 2013:

Phil Chang and Sally Russell, Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project Co-Chairs

Ed Keith, Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project Vice Chair

Article Topic Follows: Environment
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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.


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