On October 6th, 2022, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project filed suit against the United States Forest Service to stop the illegal logging of large trees in the South Warner project in the Lakeview District of the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
The Forest Service is planning to commercially log approximately 16,000 acres in the South Warner sale. The sale includes the logging of large trees, defined as those ≥21” diameter at breast height, with the agency relying on the illegal rollback of protections for large trees that took place during the final days of the Trump administration.
Previously, Forest Plans that guided management on National Forests in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington prohibited logging of large trees in most circumstances. The prohibition was put into place in the mid-90’s because of the well-documented deficit of large trees across the landscape due to over-logging and mismanagement.
For over 25 years, the prohibition on logging large trees has been crucial for wildlife, water quality, and carbon storage. Numerous wildlife species depend on large trees and old forests for habitat, including American marten, Vaux’s swifts, Pileated woodpeckers, Black bears, numerous bird species, and bats. Large trees make up only 3% of the trees in these forests, yet store approximately 42% of the carbon.
In a rushed and illegal process that circumvented public participation, the Forest Service eliminated meaningful protections for large trees on approximately 11 million acres across six National Forests: the Deschutes, Ochoco, Malheur, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, and Fremont-Winema National Forests. Over 115 scientists spoke out against the rollback of protections for large trees. Over 30 organizations, including wildlife, conservation, Indigenous, public health, and climate groups, raised concerns about the agency process and rule changes.
Included in the Trump-era changes to the previous protections is the change from an enforceable standard that clearly prohibited the logging of most large trees, to a discretionary guideline that focuses on retaining some old and large trees. Guidelines inherently provide more discretion to the agencies implementing them, ultimately making federal agencies like the Forest Service less accountable to the people whose forests they are required to protect and manage to provide habitat for all native species.
Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project’s (BMBP) legal challenge addresses both the Trump-era amendment to the Fremont-Winema Forest Plan as well as the South Warner project itself, which relies on that amendment to log large Grand and White fir trees up to 30” diameter at breast height. Public participation is a vital aspect of the Forest Plan amendment process under the National Forest Management Act, and the Service’s illegal circumvention of these requirements only serves to stymie the public’s right to comment on and object to the scientifically controversial management of their National Forests.
Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project’s Co-Director, Paula Hood expressed her disappointment regarding the South Warner project: “The Forest Service has a responsibility to protect large trees on the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The agency is instead targeting big trees for logging, despite overwhelming evidence that they are essential for maintaining biodiversity, providing clean water, and mitigating climate change. Large trees remain at a deficit on the landscape, and so every large tree out there is important right now. These biological legacy trees need to be protected, not logged.”
Tom Buchele, lead attorney on this case, stated that “the illegal amendment to the eastside National Forest Plans represents a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to rush through the rollback of key protections for forests, without adequate public input or environmental review. We are suing the Forest Service to preserve ecologically-important large trees in this sale, and to defend the public’s right to have a say in management on National Forests.”
Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project is represented by Tom Buchele at Earthrise Law Center and Austin Starnes, BMBP’s Staff Attorney. BMBP is a grassroots ecological protection group based in Eastern Oregon that monitors and challenges agency actions in order to protect public lands on the Blue Mountains and Eastern Oregon Cascades.