For Immediate Release—January 25, 2021
Walton Lake Old Growth Logging Challenged in Court by Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project
Thanks to the determined efforts of Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and its attorneys, the United States Forest Service is now being challenged in court over their decision to authorize the clearcutting of all the fir trees, including large old growth firs, over about 35 acres and logging other mature and large trees forming the backdrop for scenic Walton Lake, one of the most popular recreation areas in the Ochoco National Forest. The Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project is represented by Tom Buchele, the Co-Director of the Earthrise Law Center at Lewis & Clark School of Law in Portland, Oregon, and Jesse Buss, whose law office is located in Oregon City.
Walton Lake is located in the Ochoco Mountains in central Oregon, northeast of Prineville. The Lake is a very popular recreation area because of the lake itself, its old growth trees, a developed campground and its scenic beauty and abundant wildlife. South and east of the Lake a stand of mature and old growth fir provides the scenic backdrop and provides habitat for wildlife species associated with old growth forests. Many of these old growth firs are more than three to four feet in diameter.
The Walton Lake proposed timber sale represents a dramatic shift in how the Forest Service plans to manage the Walton Lake recreation area. The challenged decision approves the logging of hundreds of large trees and numerous very large old growth trees in the project area, including predominately fir old growth forest in the Walton Lake visual influence area. Walton Lake is one of the most popular recreation sites in the Ochoco National Forest. Implementation of the Walton Lake “Restoration Project” would result in the loss of more than 500 old growth firs, destruction of visual quality provided by the old growth forest, degradation of excellent wildlife habitat, and significant impairment to outdoor recreation in the Project Area. The proposed timber sale would negatively impact the aesthetics, social context, and biophysical aspects of Walton Lake’s current and beloved sense of place.
Five years ago, the Forest Service shifted its prior management approach dramatically, and proposed to essentially clearcut a predominately fir, old growth forest in the visual influence area because some of the firs have laminated root rot, as they have for decades. All of the firs are susceptible to that naturally occurring disease. Removing all of these firs – essentially a clearcut – would completely destroy the visual quality provided by an old growth forest which the visual influence area is intended to maintain. Such heavy logging is unnecessary since the Forest Service is already allowed to fell legitimate hazard trees in the Walton Lake developed recreation area and has been using this method to increase public safety successfully for many years. Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project has no objection to legitimate hazard tree felling.
The fact that the Forest Service must propose four plan amendments in order to accomplish the Project underscores how inconsistent the Project is with the existing plan and its intent for the area, and the significance of the changes to the Walton Lake area that the Forest Service is proposing. The first proposed Forest Plan amendment eliminates the Eastside Screens Forest Plan provision requiring retention of late structural and old growth forest in areas where these are below the historical level. The second amendment eliminates the Eastside Screens requirement to maintain all late structural and old growth live trees >=21 inches diameter at breast height that currently exist within stands proposed for logging. The third amendment eliminates the strict visual quality standard that applies to the Walton Lake recreation area. The fourth amendment removes the 5-acre limit on clearcutting (“regeneration harvest”). This proposed amendment plans to increase the allowable logged patch size seven-fold from 5 acres to at least 35 acres.
The Forest Service has failed to demonstrate compliance with the mandatory limit for detrimental soil impacts set forth in the Ochoco Forest Plan. Further, the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Assessment analysis violates INFISH, which sets “no logging” buffers for creeks and other waterways, admitting that logging would occur within the Riparian Habitat Conservation Area buffers.
“It certainly doesn’t help the Forest Service’s case that they failed to cancel the active timber sale contract they awarded years ago,” says Karen Coulter, Director of Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, “When I visited Walton Lake after the Forest Service issued the Environmental Assessment, I was outraged to find that the planned logging area was already all marked, tagged, and flagged for an active timber sale, with the area planned for clearcutting marked as off limits to the public, under penalty of heavy fines for closure violation. The Environmental Assessment could not be unbiased, given that the Forest Service was keeping an active, already awarded timber sale contract in effect. We hope that the Forest Service will finally abandon this mis-guided timber sale.”
Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project is a grassroots ecological protection group based in Eastern Oregon that monitors agency plans for the Ochoco, Deschutes, Malheur, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests, as well as the expansive Prineville and Vale Bureau of Land Management Districts.
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.
Jesse Buss is a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School and was enrolled in Earthrise while he was a student. After he graduated in 2012 Mr. Buss opened his own law office in Oregon City and has a successful general law practice that includes public interest environmental law.
Background context: In late 2015 the Forest Service initially had planned to rush the Walton Lake timber sale through with little opportunity for public scrutiny under a Categorical Exclusion and by falsely claiming that all of its proposed logging was just “thinning.” However, the Forest Service dropped that proposal shortly after Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (represented by Earthrise and Mr. Buss) sued them in federal court in October of 2016 and the District Court issued a preliminary injunction. A key piece of evidence in that initial lawsuit showed that although all of the Forest Service’s notices to the public described their proposed logging as “thinning,” an internal Forest Service document described the logging of the old growth fir forest as a “clearcut..” Responding to continued opposition by Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of another iteration of the Project in 2016, and the Forest Service then withdrew the Decision Memo for the Project in order to do additional NEPA analysis. However, before the project was enjoined and the Decision Memo withdrawn, the Forest Service entered into a contract giving a private timber company the right to conduct the commercial logging authorized by the project. This logging contract was not canceled in 2016 and has remained in place during all of the Forest Service’s subsequent analysis. The 2017 EA and draft Decision Notice were flawed in part because it was prepared after the logging contract was in place. The Forest Service withdrew the proposed 2017 decision after Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project submitted an Objection. The Forest Service’s current decision fails to correct the legal deficiencies in its prior, related decisions regarding what is essentially the same Project.