Judge halts logging ‘hazard trees’ in fire-burned Willamette National Forest, possibly delaying access

Zach Urness Salem Statesman Journal

A federal judge blocked a U.S. Forest Service plan to log hazard trees along 400 miles of road in Willamette National Forest this week, dealing a blow to the agency’s plan for reopening 170,000 acres of forest burned in the Labor Day fires last year.

The Forest Service touted the plan — which included using commercial logging to remove about 20,000 acres of burned forest — as the first step toward reopening access to places burned in the Beachie Creek, Lionshead and Holiday Farm fires that have been closed for more than a year.  

District Judge Michael J. McShane’s ruling is likely to change that.

The ruling does allow the Forest Service to remove some trees, including those at greatest risk of falling along main roads, so the agency could potentially move forward with preparing to reopen main roadways to places such as Opal Creek, Breitenbush and the northern Mount Jefferson Wilderness.

But they won’t be able to get revenue supporting the project through commercial logging or remove trees that might, or might not, fall in the next five years, the judge ruled.

Related:Lawsuits target plan to log, reopen 170,000 acres of iconic land

Four environmental groups brought the case, saying the Forest Service plan proposed logging far more trees along more roads than was necessary for public safety. They said the agency skipped a requirement to produce a detailed environmental assessment for that scale of project.

“The Forest Service just went way too big, authorizing far more logging than the law allows without doing an environmental assessment,” said Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups that brought the suit. “The Forest Service attempted to use the fires as cover to commercially log in scenic areas and on remote roads, which risked further harm to these sensitive burned landscapes and undermined confidence in their ability to manage public lands.”

The Forest Service didn’t immediately comment on the ruling, saying only that they were reviewing it. 

Previously, they said the fire-burned trees could fall on people or cars while blocking roads for emergency responders and slowing commerce. That’s why they want to remove “hazard trees” — dead trees within about 200 feet of roadways — for the long term.

“Without the removal of dead and dying trees, the road system would remain in an unusable state for many years as thousands of trees fall into and across roads and block passage,” Dave Warnack, forest supervisor for the Willamette National Forest, said in court filings.

In the event of a wildfire, poor road conditions could hinder fire crews, he said.

“Emergency response crews may need to spend hours clearing downed trees off a road to reach a (fire) ignition or may not be able to safely access it all. This situation puts local communities and the general public at an unnecessary risk,” he wrote.

Timber groups criticized the lawsuits and ruling, saying it would lead the project being paid for by taxpayers, as opposed to the agency making money through timber sales to do the same work. 

“This injunction will likely result in permanent closure of forest roads that provide safe access,” said Nick Smith, spokesman for the American Forest Resource Institute, a timber advocacy group. “Taxpayers will also be stuck with an even higher bill for post-fire clean up. And, as these trees continue to deteriorate, the dangers increase and the forest workers tasked with doing that clean-up will be put at an exponentially higher level of risk, than if the court had allowed them to do it now.”