The U.S. Forest Service agreed to cut fewer trees within the scar of the Labor Day fires in a decision over how the federal agency should make its roads safe and return access to 170,000 acres of public lands east of Salem and Eugene.
For more than two years, the Forest Service and environmental groups have battled over the scale of “hazard tree removal” — the cutting of fire-burned trees along hundreds of miles of roads in Willamette National Forest torched in the Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Holiday Farm fires.
Last week, the Forest Service issued a final decision to remove fire-killed trees along 253 miles of roads within the scar of the three fires. It was far fewer than the 404 miles originally planned for logging.
The purpose of the project is to remove trees that could fall across roads. Work will begin in the coming year and result in the reopening of roads that have remained closed, mainly in the Detroit area.
The forest and trails reopened last autumn but many of the roads providing access remained closed, leading to longer-than-normal hikes to reach popular destinations including Jefferson Park, Tumble Lake and what remains of Jawbone Flats in the Opal Creek area.
“Roads will be reopened in phases as they are treated so that a small group of roads will be reopened at a time as work is completed including tree falling, fuel removal and road maintenance,” Leslie Garcia, spokeswoman for Willamette National Forest, said.
Environmental groups such as Cascadia Wildlands sued the Forest Service in 2021, claiming the original plan was too sweeping and required closer study. District Judge Michael J. McShane agreed and issued an injunction blocking the original plan.
The Forest Service went back to the drawing board and returned with last week’s scaled-back decision.
“Following our initial lawsuit, we have been meeting with the Forest Service about this project and have done extensive field checking of the areas to undergo hazard tree removal,” Nick Cady, conservation director for the environmental group Cascadia Wildlands, said. “Through this collaborative approach, the agency removed 150 miles of roads from its initial proposal, where logging was not needed for safety purposes.
“The remaining 250 miles have site-specific reasons for treatment, and in many cases, the ‘treatment’ itself has been reduced in scope as well. On this second time around, the Forest Service listened to and incorporated the wishes of the public, and we believe we have reached a reasonable middle ground.”
Timber groups pointed out that the drawn-out battle delayed reopening access to public lands while costing taxpayers and limiting the ability to turn fire-killed trees into timber.
In the original plan, the work of removing hazard trees would have been done, at least in part, through timber sales that would have brought in revenue to the Forest Service and logs to mills to turn into timber.
“This is another example of the paralysis in our system of public lands management,” said Nick Smith, spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade group that advocates for more active logging and forest management on federal lands. “Removal of hazard trees in 2021 would have provided timber products for local mills that could have been manufactured into useful wood products. Due to delays, much of that value has been lost to deterioration.
“Timber manufacturers would have paid the government to remove those hazard trees. Now, the government is proposing to use tax dollars to pay contractors to fell those hazard trees since their timber value has largely evaporated.”
Garcia said the Forest Service would put out a contract for bid soon for the work.
She said although they wouldn’t be doing timber sales, the Forest Service could still see some revenue by selling some of the timber or its remnants, such as chips, firewood and hog fuel.
“The value from products may result in reduced service costs,” she said.
The Forest Service doesn’t have a cost estimate for the project yet, she said.
Garcia said the Forest Service was not planning to close any roads permanently.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.After years of fights, Forest Service moves forward on tree removal in Labor Day Fire scar