MYRTLE CREEK, Ore. -- The idea behind logging on the Buck Rising timber sale is to take out trees the same way nature does.
Bureau of Land Management forester Abe Wheeler touts this method of selective logging as a way of making revenue while being no more obtrusive than a natural fire cycle.
“We’re trying to take a mechanical disturbance — which is harvesting practices or logging — and we’re trying to make that look closely as possible to a natural disturbance like a wildfire or a windstorm,” Wheeler said during a recent tour meant to demonstrate the positive side of this newer approach to tree-cutting.
The BLM says this experimental timber harvest in Southern Oregon balances healthy forests and a healthy timber economy. A bill before Congress would order the use of the same methods, also known as variable retention harvests, on up to a million acres of public forestland in the Pacific Northwest.
But conservation groups say despite the "ecological forestry" label, environmental protections aren’t strong enough — and they’re opposing legislation that would bring more logging like this to the region.
Many rural Oregon counties traditionally relied on revenues from timber production on BLM forestland. But those revenues have fallen sharply since the 1990s. In 2010, the Department of Interior announced pilot projects to increase timber production while mitigating environmental harms.
The Buck Rising timber sale was logged between December, 2012 and February, 2014. Wheeler says the BLM made $322,441 by selling the timber from Buck Rising to the Swanson Group, which operates lumber and plywood mills in the area.
Stan Martindale, the Swanson Group’s log buyer, said it went well at Buck Rising and he would be interested in bidding on future BLM sales modeled after this one.
Different plots on Buck Rising range from intact forests, to thinning, to completely logged-over sections.
At a vista overlooking one of the plots, Abe Wheeler pointed to a young ecosystem know as an early successional forest.
“We’re watching how the vegetation changes now that the trees have been removed,” Wheeler explained, “and we are seeing a response in those early successional plants.”
Before the first tree was cut at Buck Rising, the timber sale was the subject of three protests and two legal appeals. With the trees now felled and the logs milled, opposition remains from conservation groups and local landowners.
Chandra LeGue is with Oregon Wild. She says the legislation and proposed updates to the BLM’s forestry plans both assume the pilot project’s success, even though the true ecological effects haven’t been determined.
“We just think it’s a bit irresponsible to rush full-bore with a new, mostly untried way of logging,” LeGue said. “Learning some lessons from what they’ve done here before moving ahead and applying these same prescriptions across the entire landscape would be a good step forward.”
Pat Quinn is a local landowner and a volunteer with Umpqua Watersheds. He says nearby clearcuts by timber companies, along with those on Buck Rising, damage streams and degrade water quality.
“I’m not saying the BLM shouldn’t do anything. I’m not saying this isn’t one possibility,” Quinn said. “But if you’re asking if this degrades the watershed, I have to say, ‘yes it does.’”
Steve Lydick is a field manager for the BLM. He emphasized how such harvests would increase timber sales, as required by the O&C Act of 1937, while making a limited footprint on the landscape.
To achieve this in an ecologically sound manner, Lydick cited the work of forestry professors Norman Johnson and Jerry Franklin of Oregon State University and the University of Washington, respectively.
“One surprise in my mind is that there’s been this strong of a pushback from certain groups within the environmental community,” Lydick said.
One of the strongest critics has been Frances Eatherington, conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands.
According to Eatherington, early successional forests should benefit animal species including deer and elk, moths and butterflies, and it’s inconclusive whether those species will thrive on Buck Rising.
Moreover, Eatherington says the Northwest has plenty of young forests, which grow after wildfires or timber harvests, but protections should be prioritized for older forests, which spotted owls and other listed species need.
“We have bountiful young forests for the wildlife that depend on young forests,” Eatherington said. “We are hugely lacking in older forests for wildlife.”
Eatherington and other conservationists are calling for Wyden’s proposal to be scrapped altogether. To increase revenues, they would prefer the decoupling of timber harvest revenues from county budgets and increasing taxes on private forestry companies.
Cascadia Wildlands’ conservation director says the BLM has a backlog of forest thinning projects that could increase its timber yields and promote forest health in a more sustainable manner.
Supporters of the BLM timber-harvest legislation include prominent timber companies and county officials hoping for additional revenue from the timber harvests, along with some groups advocating for additional wilderness areas that would be included.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is the bill's sponsor. He defends the proposal as one that strikes a balance between industry and the environment, drawing upon the best available science.
“Variable retention harvests have been tested in a number of parts of the world. It’s really synonymous with ecological forestry,” Wyden said.
Wyden’s counterparts in the House passed their own bill in September that called for even more logging — but the Obama administration threatened a veto.
Wyden is seeking a Senate vote on his bill by the end of the year.
The BLM is planning future timber harvests using the same methods. Officials say Scott Timber will start harvesting the 202-acre Here’s Your Sign site this summer.