Federal judge halts post-fire 'salvage logging' in Willamette National Forest

·3 min read
Logged trees are piled along Highway 46, adjacent to the Breitenbush River.
Logged trees are piled along Highway 46, adjacent to the Breitenbush River.

A federal judge has halted U.S. Forest Service plans to log portions of the Willamette National Forest near Breitenbush Hot Springs and Detroit Lake that were affected by the 2020 Labor Fires.

This ruling comes after two conservation groups, Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, filed a lawsuit to stop the logging. They allege the Forest Service modified logging contracts after the 2020 fires without going through the proper environmental review process and without notifying the public.

Meriel Darzen, one of the attorneys for the conservation groups, said that before the 2020 fires these areas had been set aside for selective thinning and prescribed burning. After the fire, the contracts were modified to allow companies to do salvage logging.

The plaintiffs argue that the decision to allow salvage logging was made without public input, despite heavy public involvement in the original plan, Darzen said. They also argue that because the fire drastically altered the environment, a new environmental review is necessary to determine the impact this logging would have on the area.

“Both the catastrophic 2020 fires and the Forest Service’s decision to implement ‘salvage’ where it was originally going to do selective thinning and burning were significant changes that required new analysis and public involvement,” Darzen said. “The Forest Service’s backroom decision to log these sensitive recently burned areas with no analysis is harmful.”

In court documents, the Forest Service disagreed, saying the "remaining Lang Dam harvest involves green tree thinning as originally planned in units that were unaffected by the 2020 fire," Forest Service lawyers wrote. "Plaintiffs’ declarants — who focus on harvest in burned areas — fail to identify any imminent, irreparable harm they will suffer from the remaining harvest in unburned, unmodified, Lang Dam sale units next season."

A tree is marked for logging in the Willamette National Forest.
A tree is marked for logging in the Willamette National Forest.

In short, the two conservation groups are suggesting this decision by the Willamette National Forest violates federal environmental law, including the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Oregon Wild brought this case to defend the simple proposition that when a wildfire burns through an ongoing timber sale, the Forest Service needs to pump the brakes and involve the public in deciding how to move forward,” Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild said. “That’s not just the law, but also the best way to protect our forests, drinking water, wildlife, carbon, and scenic values.”

The Forest Service asserted they did do that, noting in court documents they prepared a post-fire report that "thoroughly assessed the significance and likely effects of implementing previously-awarded sales after the fire," the agency said.

"The Forest Service reasonably concluded that project could proceed without significant new effects if it incorporated several implementation modifications," the agency wrote. "The careful (new) analysis is precisely the type of thorough post-decisional review regulations seek to foster."

Some of the areas have already been logged. Judge Ann Aiken's ruling halts any further logging, pending the end of the lawsuit.

Logged trees lay alongside the McKenzie River Highway after the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire.
Logged trees lay alongside the McKenzie River Highway after the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire.

Aiken is expected to release a written ruling on the decision shortly.

This is the second such ruling in less than a month, after a different federal judge halted Forest Service plans to log 400 miles of road in Willamette National Forest in early November.

More: Judge halts logging ‘hazard trees’ in fire-burned Willamette National Forest

Eddy Binford-Ross is the Outdoors Intern at the Statesman Journal. Contact her at ebinfordross@statesmanjournal.com or follow on Twitter @eddybinfordross.

Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 13 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Post-fire logging in Willamette National Forest halted by federal judge

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