Another Timber War Looms

Allowing the liquidation of old-growth forests could set off another era of conflict between loggers and environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest.

IN APRIL 2020, the world is in lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. But in the foothills at the south end of Oregon’s Coast Range mountains, resource extraction is going full speed ahead. On Kenyon Mountain in eastern Coos County, about 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean, a crew of loggers is chopping down 51 acres of old-growth and mature trees. Some of these trees have been alive since George Washington was president, based on a count of rings on the stump. Maps say the closest town is the aptly named Remote, Oregon, a town so small it’s no longer mentioned in US census counts, yet long ago was important enough to merit a profile in the New York Times.

a view of mountains covered with uniform pine trees with a massive clearcut in the middle.

A view of timber giant Weyerhaeuser’s 210,000-acre Millicoma Tree Farm in Oregon’s Coast Range. This is one of the largest tree farms in the United States. Weyerhaeuser liquidated the old growth forests here and replanted the area with rows of conifers that it harvests every 40 years. Photo by Francis Eatherington.

At first glance, Remote amounts to little more than a dilapidated gas station, a country store and a post office. But not far from town, a historic covered bridge crosses a small tributary of the Coquille River. A little further away, the tallest Douglas-fir on Earth — 329-foot-tall Brummitt Fir — stands beside a popular hiking trail.

On Kenyon Mountain, a modest ridge about ten miles north of Remote, the loggers are clear-cutting a stand of old-growth trees mixed with younger ones. The loggers are not alone. Two environmental activists, Gabe Scott and Francis Eatherington, are hot on their trail, hoping to document the liquidation of some of the last old-growth trees in the entire Coast Range. They are gathering evidence to feed into potential legal challenges to the clear-cutting as well as to drum up public support for their cause, which is to protect ancient forests.

When Scott, an attorney for the environmental group Cascadia Wildlands, and Eatherington, a resident of nearby Roseburg, reached the summit, they found only a field of freshly severed stumps.

Kenyon Mountain is located near the juncture of two ancient geological formations: the Coast Range to the north, which emerged about sixty million years ago during the Paleocene age; and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains to the south and east, which originated 400 million years ago in the Jurassic period. Scott’s camera captures a massive stump alongside a dirt logging road. “It’s old growth,” Scott says. “There are more than 200 rings on this one stump.” One ring for each year. Scott estimates the tree measured about forty feet around at its base. Trees of this size and age easily qualify as old growth, by anyone’s standard.

“There were definitely some trees over 200 years old,” Eatherington says. “The majority of the stand was closer to 80 to 90 years. It all got whacked.” An 80-year- old Douglas-fir is a maturing tree, busily inhaling a good amount of carbon dioxide, but won’t become old growth for another one hundred years. Eatherington, a veteran of the Northwest timber wars of the 1990s, is accustomed to clear-cuts like this. She lives about 20 miles up State Highway 42 at the edge of the timber giant Weyerhaeuser’s 210,000-acre Millicoma Tree Farm, one of the largest tree farms in the US. Long ago, Weyerhaeuser liquidated the old growth and replanted with rows of saplings. It logs each section of the tree farm every 40 years, and then sprays the bare ground with chemicals. It’s not unusual for Eartherington to begin her day with a fresh whiff of a chemical herbicide.

We asked Sara Duncan of the Oregon Forest and Industry Council, a timber industry trade group, why it is still cutting down old-growth forests, and drew a sharp rebuke.

“The industry does not target old growth in any way,” she told us. To say otherwise, she insisted, “is completely false, and frankly, offensive.” But the photographs taken by Scott and Eartherington don’t just say otherwise, they shout it out loud. The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) calls logging the old forests on Kenyon Mountain “regenerative harvests,” possibly to avoid drawing too much attention to the carnage.

What does that term mean? we asked Gabe Scott. “Regenerative harvest is just a clear-cut by a different name. It sounds greener,” Scott told us. The freshly cut logs will be trucked east to sawmills near Eugene, Cottage Grove, and Roseburg. Soon, the BLM will spray the denuded Kenyon Mountain landscape with herbicides, killing what remains of the understory, and plant a tree farm.

Clear-cut debris on the side of the road in Oceanside, Oregon, mere miles from the most carbon-dense forest north of California. Photo by Jessica Applegate

IN 1937, CONGRESS passed the O&C Lands Act, a law (named after the Oregon and California Railroad, a previous owner of BLM’s timberland in the state) spelling out how these lands would be managed in the future. This law handed over a sizable portion of revenues from timber sold from these lands to 18 Oregon counties.

Today, county officials contend that the law requires BLM to maximize the amount of timber sold from these lands. Not even federal environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act or the Clean Water Act can interfere with the flow of lumber and money, they said. And they found a judge willing to go along with their scheme: Richard Leon, the senior judge in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, a court some 3,000 miles from the forests in question. Leon was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by George W. Bush.

Rather than paying property taxes on its forestland, the BLM pays the counties half of all timber receipts. Congress supplements the counties’ revenues through a “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” program. In all, the counties receive up to $300 million a year. The property tax rates in the 18 O&C counties in Oregon are about 40 percent lower than in the eighteen non-O& C counties elsewhere in Oregon. The counties can spend the revenues on roads, schools, and libraries — whatever they like.

Harvests and payments have declined since the implementation of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, a federal land management plan designed to protect threatened and endangered species while also maintaining to social and economic sustainability in the region. The counties were not happy to see their payments decline, so they sued. In 2019, Judge Leon ruled in their favor, saying the BLM has a “mandatory duty” under the O&C Act to manage the land only for timber production. Under his ruling, the BLM cannot protect the forest ecosystem for biodiversity or the climate, unless the counties’ demands for timber are met first. “Of this,” he emphasized, “there can be no doubt.” As a result, the BLM’s forests in western Oregon may be the only places in the United States where environmental laws cannot be enforced.

“It’s a shame to see a decision try to turn back the clock on federal forest management out here,” says Kristin Boyle, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice, a not-for-profit environmental law firm which is appealing the ruling. If Leon’s ruling stands on appeal, Boyle predicts it will destroy salmon and steelhead runs, water quality, and the endangered northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets that rely on old-growth forest habitat. Sequestering large amounts of carbon in these forests is also out of the question.

Susan Jane Brown, a Eugene attorney who has been battling BLM in court for 20 years, is appealing Judge Leon’s ruling as well. Past and ongoing logging operations have been shown to decrease stream flows during summer by 50 percent, posing a significant impediment to biodiversity. “Judge Leon’s reading of the statute is incomplete at best, and completely erroneous at worst,” Brown says.

The American Forest Resource Council, an industry group, is the main force behind the lawsuit the counties filed against BLM. The council has called for an immediate 30 percent increase in logging in the BLM’s mature and old-growth forests. Such an increase, ecologists told us, would have severe impacts on wildlife and the climate. But the counties are trying to spin their lawsuit as friendly to the environment. In an op-ed published in several Oregon newspapers, three county commissioners claimed Judge Leon’s ruling “ensures” the protection of fish and wildlife. But that’s not what they say in their court filings, where they admit the logging could lead to extinctions of fish and wildlife, but nevertheless must continue. “One has to wonder whether the industry really thought through their strategy,” Brown says.

By allowing the liquidation of old-growth forests to continue on BLM land, Judge Leon may have triggered another war in the woods. Andy Kerr, the long-time forest activist, predicts the backlash could get ugly: “If big timber and the addicted counties feel besieged now, just wait,” he says. “They will rue the day they tried to reclaim the bad old days and not adapt to changing times.”

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