Old growth logging in the Malheur National Forest

The Forest Service claims that logging in the Big Mosquito timber sale on the Malheur National Forest is restoration.

Unit 70. Photo by Daniel Howland (2021)

The Forest Service told the public that the Big Mosquito sale would help save old growth Ponderosa pines. Unfortunately, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project found dozens of old growth Ponderosa pine trees cut down as part of this sale– in direct contradiction with agency promises and public messaging. Hundreds more old growth trees are likely to be cut as logging continues.

The Forest Service repeatedly suggests that they need to log forests in order to save them, and that logging is good for old growth forests. The Forest Service refuses to acknowledge the on-the-ground reality of the destructive logging that is taking place across the Malheur and other National Forests, or the high ecological costs to forests and streams. The agency also refuses to acknowledge the mounting scientific evidence that logging in the backcountry is an ineffective and outdated strategy to address wildfire or climate change.

Unit 70. Photo: Daniel Howland (2021)

The Forest Service, timber industry interests, and “collaborative” groups hailed the Big Mosquito sale as a model restoration project designed to protect large and old Ponderosa pines. In order to promote the weakening of protections for large trees on over eight million acres of National Forests in Eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington, they depicted this sale as a successful example of logging large trees to save old growth.

However, BMBP’s field surveys found dozens of large and old Ponderosa pines cut recently (in 2020) as part of this sale. They were designated ‘hazards’, or cut because of their proximity to logging haul corridors and roads– most of which were far from main roads. Some of the old growth stumps did not seem to be along haul or cable corridors, and several seemed to be entirely outside of areas where logging activities took place. Numerous large and old Ponderosa pines were taken to the mill and sold, even if they were not officially targeted for logging.

We documented tree rings on a small portion of the dozens of large and old trees that were cut in this unit (unit 70). We documented 30 trees that were at least 150 years old when they were cut. Some were over 200 years old, including a few that were approximately 300 years old. You can see the tree ring photos here.

Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and Oregon Wild met with Forest Service staff in the field in 2021 to discuss our concerns. The Forest Service held the position that the logging in unit 70 was in line with their overall restoration goals and with regulations. While agency staff emphasized that large and old Ponderosa pines were not meant to be targeted for logging, they also confirmed that they have the discretion to allow these large and old trees to be cut– and often sold– as part of timber sale implementation.

Unit 70 is one of several skyline logging units totaling approximately 750 acres within the Big Mosquito sale. Skyline logging apparently requires extensive cutting of trees for log haul and cable corridors. If the additional skyline logging units that are planned in the sale result in similar on-the-ground impacts, then hundreds of old trees may be cut down within the next few years in those units alone. Large and old trees are also at risk outside of skyline logging units in this sale and other nearby sales. (You can see the agency’s explanation of skyline logging here)

These are just some of the ways in which we are starting to see the effects of the Forest Service, timber industry,  and collaboratives loudly pushing in recent years to increase logging of large trees on National Forests in Eastern Oregon– and to allow even more agency discretion with less public oversight.

Unit 70. Photo by Daniel Howland (2021)

Unfortunately, in the last days of the Trump administration, they succeeded in severely weakening protections on eight million acres across six National Forests in Eastern Oregon and Southeastern Washington. These protections, known as the 21” Screens, prohibited logging of trees ≥21” in diameter in most situations. For decades, these protections were crucial for wildlife, water quality, carbon storage, and forest climate resilience. It is vitally important that they be reinstated.

Logging along Rd 3690 in Big Mosquito (not in unit 70).

To be clear, not all of the logging in the Big Mosquito sale (or other nearby sales) include such alarming and extensive logging of large and old trees. However, the ecological costs and the ‘collateral damage’ on in this sale– not to mention the thousands of acres of logging and road-related impacts across numerous nearby sales– have not been accounted for by the agency and are not discussed transparently with the public. The on-the-ground impacts of logging can be far more damaging and extensive than the agency, timber industry, or collaborative groups generally acknowledge.

Unit 70 prior to logging

It is essential that environmental analyses and public oversight opportunities NOT be circumvented by the Forest Service. It is clear that agencies have too much discretion and not enough oversight. Strong environmental laws and rigorous analyses are needed to protect what is left of our old and mature forests.

BMBP field surveyed the Big Mosquito sale before it was logged, during the public comment process. You can see more pictures of unit 70 prior to logging here. You can also see more post-logging photos from this unit here.

Unit 70. Photo by Daniel Howland (2021).
Unit 70. Photo by Daniel Howland (2021)

Below are the tree rings from one of the large old Ponderosa pines cut in unit 70, with notes on historical events added. Discussing numbers, such as tree ages, can be abstract and may not adequately bring to life certain realities– such as this tree being old enough, before it was cut down in 2020, to have lived through events such as the ending of the Spanish Inquisition, electricity being discovered, and cars being invented. The historical events noted below focus on local and regional events relatively close to where the tree (now tree stump) is located. The notes reflect only a small sampling of the many historic events that took place over the long life of this tree.

Most of the Indigenous history information included in the figure below is taken directly (or adapted for length) from the Native Voices Timeline on National Library of Medicine webpage  and the Pacific University of Oregon Library webpage, as well as the Burns Paiute Tribe’s website and the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) Tribe’s website history page. Please visit these websites to learn more. Additional resources for the timeline include:the Oregon Encyclopedia webpage and Oregon History Project webpage (both projects of the Oregon Historical Society), OPB’s article Broken Treaties an Oral History Tracing Oregon’s Native Population, OPB’s article on the Massacre at Hells Canyon, and Wikipedia.

More problems with logging in back-to-back sales in the Malheur National Forest:

This map, created by the Nature Conservancy in 2019, shows timber sales (aka “restoration” projects) covering almost the entirety of the Malheur National Forest.

The Big Mosquito timber sale is one of a series of large, back-to-back sales in the Malheur National Forest. Taken together, the Big Mosquito sale and neighboring sales contain over 50,000 acres of commercial logging in recent, current, and proposed timber sales. These sales also include the Camp Lick, Ragged Ruby, Magone, and Austin sales. Many of these sales include large tree logging, and several include thinning within streamside corridors.

The Camp Lick sale is directly adjacent to the Big Mosquito sale. Even though logging has only begun in a small portion of the Camp Lick sale, felling of very large and old Ponderosa pines is already taking place. The logging pictured below is in units 112 and 114. As mentioned above, widespread cutting of ‘hazard’ trees and trees in close proximity to haul routes and ‘temporary’ roads is an increasingly alarming issue.

It’s important to note that timber sales require extensive road systems. This map only includes permanent roads. ‘Temporary’ roads, yarding corridors, and other log haul routes add to the already extensive road network shown here, and also leave large and old trees vulnerable to ‘hazard’ tree logging.

BMBP filed litigation on the Camp Lick sale in July 2021 to stop the illegal logging of large trees and to protect threatened fish habitat in the Camp Lick Project in the Malheur National Forest. The Forest Service plans to log some of the last remaining large trees in the area, including streamside trees that shade and provide critical habitat for threatened steelhead.

Despite the enormity of these back-to-back sales and their potential for widespread and damaging environmental consequences, the Forest Service failed to conduct an adequate cumulative impacts analysis for species such as Mid-Columbia River steelhead, which are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency failed to consider the combined sum of all the affected habitat in these back-to-back sales. Shockingly, it appears that approximately one third of Mid-Columbia River steelhead in the Malheur NF may be affected.

The agency’s narrow focus on logging ignores clean water and imperiled fish:

Streams in these back-to-back sales regularly reach temperatures which violate state water quality standards and are limiting or potentially lethal to imperiled fish.

Thinning within the streamside corridor along Bear Creek in the Big Mosquito sale (Malheur National Forest)

In addition, there are issues with inconsistent and inaccurate data in the agency’s environmental analyses. BMBP compared stream temperature data in timber sale analysis documents to Freedom of Information Act data we obtained, as well as to data from the NorWest database (where the Forest Service says they obtained data for the Ragged Ruby sale). For over twenty streams, stream temperatures were inconsistent or inaccurate. In numerous streams, temperatures in the FOIA and NorWest databases were higher than those that the Forest Service disclosed in their timber sale environmental analyses. In some cases, the Forest Service had internal stream temperature data which they failed to include in their public-facing analyses.

Many of the creeks that have commercial logging planned within their streamside corridors regularly reach stream temperatures that are in excess of state standards. Some creeks regularly reach temperatures of 70 degrees or higher. Such temperatures are limiting or lethal to imperiled fish. Several of these creeks are designated critical habitat for Mid-Columbia River steelhead.

Thinning within the streamside corridor along Bear Creek

The Big Mosquito project was also hailed as a model project for thinning within streamside riparian corridors. However, in 2018 BMBP’s field survey work uncovered breaches by the Forest Service of our written agreement with the agency regarding streamside logging along Bear Creek in the Big Mosquito timber sale (Malheur NF). In our agreement, the Forest Service had agreed to fell trees only for the purposes of placing them into Bear Creek, and to consult with BMBP in the field before the work took place. The Forest Service did not adhere to this agreement. Instead the agency felled numerous trees beyond what they placed in the stream, and went forward with the work without contacting us. You can read more about this issue here. In addition, the Forest Service has not continued with important portions of the stream temperature monitoring work they promised would occur.

Bear Creek in 2014, prior to sale implementation

The Forest Service apologized to BMBP after the breach of our agreement. We appreciate that mistakes can and do happen. However, we remain extremely concerned that such mistakes, particularly in combination with the issues discussed here, come with very high ecological costs that have not been adequately or transparently considered.

Another issue to note is that the agency claimed, in the Big Mosquito sale and numerous other nearby sales, that most of the streams in the project areas were not red-flagged for water quality impairment on the state’s “303d” list, which tracks such issues. However, the Forest Service only recently shared decades of their internal stream temperature data with state regulatory agencies (and they only shared these data after significant pressure from Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project). In other words, many of the streams within these timber sales were not on the state 303d list because the Forest Service had not been transparent or forthcoming that these streams were, in fact, exceeding standards.

The Forest Service cannot protect stream ecosystems if they do not have accurate baseline data and do not follow through on monitoring plans.

Forests and streams need strong protections now more than ever. Given the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crises, we must act to ensure that we preserve the remaining old and mature forests, unroaded areas, connectivity corridors, and cold water habitats. The Forest Service needs to abandon their narrow focus on logging, and instead incorporate a holistic approach that prioritizes wildlife, clean water, and carbon storage. Agencies must work together to ensure that human communities are protected using the most effective strategies– those that focus on the areas directly around homes and communities rather than in the backcountry.

The photos below are also from unit 70 in the Big Mosquito sale:

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