Walton Lake Old Growth Logging Stopped

Walton Lake Old Growth Logging Stopped Again by Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project

Tom Buchele in with old growth in Walton Lake

Thanks to the determined efforts of the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project and its attorneys, the United States Forest Service is now 0-2 on its attempts to authorize clearcutting at Walton Lake. The Forest Service’s proposal had called for the logging of all fir trees (including large old growth firs) and other large trees that form the scenic backdrop for Walton Lake, the most popular recreation area 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, 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. A trail and paved road around the lake are abutted by numerous old growth ponderosa pine, douglas fir, grand fir, and western larch. South and east of the Lake an unusual (for central Oregon) stand of old growth fir provides both the scenic backdrop that is featured in many pictures of Walton Lake and excellent habitat for wildlife species that favor old growth forests. Many of these old growth firs are more than 3-4 feet in diameter.

The Forest Service has now twice unsuccessfully proposed to commercially log almost all of the large firs around Walton Lake, including the entire old growth fir forest located south and east of the lake that is supposed to be managed to protect scenic views.

Bird’s nest near Walton Lake

In late 2015, the Forest Service initially had planned to rush the 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 initial proposal shortly after Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (represented by Earthrise and Mr. Buss) sued them in federal court in August 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.

In March of 2017 the Forest Service revived the exact same sale with the release of a draft Environmental Assessment (“EA”) for public comment. Unfortunately the Forest Service’s analysis continued to misrepresent the true nature of its proposed logging. Moreover, the Forest Service’s EA failed to acknowledge that the original timber sale contract from 2016 was still in place, indicating that the analysis in the EA was simply a sham designed to justify a logging decision that the Forest Service illegally made back in 2015. With the assistance of Earthrise and Mr. Buss, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project first filed comments and then a formal administrative objection to this second proposal to log the old growth fir forest near Walton Lake. In addition to the sham nature of the analysis, the objection pointed out that the proposed logging had numerous other legal flaws including that there were alternatives other than clearcutting all of the large firs, and the proposed clearcutting violated the Ochoco National Forest Management Plan by failing to protect the area’s scenic beauty. The Forest Service voluntarily withdrew its second logging proposal in late December, shortly after meeting with the Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project regarding its objections. That withdrawal was an unexpected but welcome development that will allow the public to enjoy Walton Lake with its scenic vistas intact, at least for the immediate future.

Michelle with old growth fir stump in the Walton Lake timber sale

“While we would have to speculate as to why the Forest Service again dropped the sale, it certainly didn’t help their case that they failed to cancel the active timber sale contract they had awarded during the first round,” 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 tree-marked, sale unit-tagged, and flagged for an active timber sale, as well as marked as off limits to the public, under penalty of heavy fines. Our objection included the fact that an Environmental Assessment is supposed to be an unbiased analysis of potential environmental impacts. The Assessment could not be unbiased, given that the Forest Service was keeping an active, already awarded timber sale contract in effect.”

“Logging a rare, intact old growth mixed conifer forest is not something the Forest Service should even be considering, especially when it knows there are far less drastic alternatives to address the exaggerated public safety concerns that the Forest Service has pointed to as its justification for this commercial logging,” says Earthrise Co-Director Tom Buchele, “and I hope that the Forest Service realizes that for this project two strikes means the end for such an extreme proposal.” Attorney Jesse Buss, who also worked on the case, agrees: “A key issue in this case was successful enforcement of the so-called ‘visual quality objectives’ of the Ochoco Forest Plan, which governs the management of the Walton Lake recreation area. That is, for the area around Walton Lake, the Plan emphasizes beauty, scenic views, and ‘natural’-looking thinning. Clear-cutting would be completely inconsistent with that management prescription.”

Karen Coulter with old growth fir in the Walton Lake timber

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 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 firm in Oregon City and now has a successful general law practice that includes public interest environmental law.