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Forest Service closes Walton Lake Campground to begin tree-thinning project, but 8-year court fight may not be over

(Update: adding video; statement from Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project)

Agency says it's been trying to address public safety issues from extensive root rot

 PRINEVILLE, Ore. (KTVZ) -- The Ochoco National Forest has closed the Walton Lake Campground as of Sunday to implement its Walton Lake Restoration Project, but environmentalists who have fought the tree removals in federal court for eight years said Friday they are again appealing a negative ruling issued this summer.

Forest Service officials have long said the project will address public safety and forest health in the Walton Lake Developed Recreation Management Area, about 30 miles east of Prineville.

Here's the rest of the Forest Service announcement:

The work will include a sanitation harvest to remove all host species of a root disease called laminated root rot. Laminated root disease has infected Douglas and grand firs in this area, rotting the trees at the base from the inside. Infected fir trees can fall without warning, creating a safety hazard for recreationists and increasing fire danger, the agency said in Tuesday's announcement.

The Walton Lake Restoration Project will also selectively remove fir trees encroaching on the large, legacy Ponderosa pines to reduce the stress of competition and conserve the mature Ponderosa forest.  Additionally, project work will include the replanting of trees that are resistant to laminated root rot, to improve public safety and maintain visual aesthetics surrounding the forest’s busiest recreation site.

“After eight years, we are eager to move forward with the Walton Lake Restoration Project in order to holistically manage for laminated root rot,” said Lookout Mountain District Ranger Slater Turner. “We’re proud of this project and know that this work will improve overall forest health in the Walton Lake area and provide for a safer visitor experience.”

Beginning Sunday, Walton Lake Campground and Day Use Area will be closed for the season and contractors will begin their work as soon as possible. The public may see logging equipment and log trucks in the vicinity of the campground and Walton Lake Sno-Park and are reminded to keep their distance, for their safety and the safety of the operators.

The Ochoco National Forest initially issued a decision on the Walton Lake Restoration Project in 2015. The Forest Service later withdrew the decision in October 2016. The Ochoco National Forest later completed a Revised Environmental Assessment (EA) and Decision Notice (DN) for the Walton Lake Restoration Project in 2020.


The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has been engaged in a years-long court fight to prevent logging of the mature forest around Walton Lake. It won a stay from a federal appeals court last November that left in place an injunction preventing the Forest Service from logging while the group appealed a largely negative court ruling.

The appeals court this summer issued a ruling in favor of the Forest Service, Ochoco National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kassidy Kern said.

Here's the group's full news release, issued Friday:

US Forest Service will proceed with logging old growth fir forest around Walton Lake in the Ochoco National Forest

The US Forest Service announced it will begin logging the old growth fir forest around Walton Lake starting October 1st, 2023. Walton Lake is located in the Ochoco Mountains in central Oregon, northeast of Prineville. The Lake is one of the most popular recreation areas on the Ochoco National Forest, and is known for its old growth trees, abundant wildlife, and scenic beauty.

The Walton Lake timber sale authorizes clearcutting of all the fir trees, including very large and old firs, on approximately 35 acres. The sale also includes an additional 43 acres of logging in mature and old forests that form the scenic backdrop of the lake and provide important habitat for wildlife.

Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (BMBP), represented by Tom Buchele at Earthrise Law Center, and Jesse Buss and Bridgett Chevallier at Willamette Law Group, have fought to stop logging of the forest around Walton Lake since 2015. The Forest Service has repeatedly attempted to log this ecologically important forest in three related and virtually identical proposals over the past several years. BMBP and its dedicated attorneys successfully stopped the agency’s first two proposals to log around Walton Lake.

Unfortunately, a Ninth Circuit Court panel sided with the agency in August of 2023, giving the green light to the Forest Service to start logging. The panel’s decision allowed the agency to omit key information from the judicial record, including evidence that had been crucial in BMBP’s previous victories in getting the project withdrawn. BMBP is in the process of appealing the decision at the Ninth Circuit. However, the Forest Service may begin logging the sale before the case is able to be considered for rehearing.

While the Forest Service has repeatedly characterized this timber sale as “thinning” to the public, BMBP’s initial lawsuit showed that an internal Forest Service document described the logging of the old growth fir forest as a “clearcut.” In addition, recent examples of Forest Service “thinning” include clearcutting and old growth logging as part of sale implementation. For example, BMBP has documented recent examples of very heavy logging, including clearcutting and logging of large and old trees, within sale units characterized by the agency as “thinning” timber sales such as Camp Lick and Big Mosquito in the Malheur National Forest.

The Forest Service is using public safety as a guise for old growth logging in the Walton Lake sale. The agency claims that logging is needed to eliminate root rot that is supposedly creating a public safety problem, even though many of the targeted firs are not currently infected and are nowhere near the Walton Lake campsites or roads.

The agency is planning to essentially clearcut the old growth and predominately fir forest around the lake because some of the firs have laminated root rot, as they have for decades. Such heavy logging is unnecessary since the Forest Service has the ongoing ability to fell legitimate roadside and campground hazard trees, and has been using this method to protect public safety for many years.

BMBP has no objection to legitimate hazard tree felling. BMBP’s legal challenges have never impeded the Forest Service’s ability to conduct legitimate hazard tree felling.

“The Forest Service is misleading the public about the nature of planned logging and the supposed ‘need’ to log large old trees. This is about getting the cut out, not about public safety,” said Paula Hood, BMBP’s Co-Director.

Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project is a grassroots ecological protection group based in Eastern Oregon that monitors and challenges agency actions in order to protect public lands on the Blue Mountains and the Eastern Oregon Cascades. 

Earthrise Law Center is the domestic environmental law clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School that provides legal training for future public interest lawyers and pro bono legal representation for not-for-profit environmental protection groups like the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project.

Based in Oregon City, the Willamette Law Group represents people defending the natural world and public spaces, including protecting ancient old-growth forests from clear-cut logging, keeping public lands public, supporting biodiversity, and opposing irresponsible development.

Article Topic Follows: Environment

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