Tuesday, March 22, 2016

O'Lickety Timber Sale: Illegal BLM Logging and the Continuing Loss of Northern Spotted Owl Habitat in the Applegate Valley

Extensive blowdown in unit 61-1 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale. Canopy reduction was drastic in many logged units in the O'Lickety Timber Sale, leaving the remaining trees more susceptible to mortality associated with blowdown, drought stress and beetle infestations.

The BLM's O'Lickety Timber Sale was logged by the Murphy Company in November of 2013. The BLM's Environmental Assessment (EA) for the sale claimed all logging units would "treat and maintain" northern spotted owl habitat, meaning existing habitat designations would not be compromised by logging treatments. Analysis in the BLM's EA and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) consultation was based on a presumption that "treat and maintain" prescription parameters would be met. Unfortunately, the prescriptions and tree removal mark approved by the BLM failed to meet the requirements identified to "maintain" northern spotted owl habitat conditions, and instead the habitat was downgraded or entirely removed. 

The O'Lickety Timber Sale was one of four consecutive BLM timber sales in the Little Applegate Valley that illegally over-cut spotted owl habitat between 2008-2014. Every unit logged in the O'Lickety Timber Sale and Lick Stew Stewardship Project eliminated or downgraded northern spotted owl habitat conditions, and all but one unit was over-cut in the Bald Lick Timber Sale. This includes units that were cable yarded and tractor logged.

The BLM's resource management plan requires the retention of 16-25 large trees per acre on all forest lands south of Grants Pass, Oregon. In numerous units this retention target was not met.

Unit 35-32 of the Nedsbar Timber Sale represents high quality spotted owl Nesting, Roosting, Foraging (NRF) habitat. The unit is proposed for logging to 40% canopy and includes trees up to 42" in diameter marked for removal.
Unit 64-1 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale was northern spotted owl Nesting, Roosting, Foraging (NRF) habitat, within 0.5 mile of an owl nesting site, and within the home range of two more occupied owl sites. The unit was proposed by the BLM as a "treat and maintain" prescription, but instead, the owl habitat was either downgraded or eliminated by BLM logging treatments. Continuing canopy loss from blowdown is further diminishing habitat values in unit 64-1.

The BLM manages two separate classifications of suitable northern spotted owl habitat: Nesting, Roosting, Foraging (NRF) habitat and dispersal habitat. 

NRF habitat is generally the most suitable habitat on the landscape with sufficient habitat complexity, canopy cover, large diameter trees, and prey populations. These areas support all habitat needs for the northern spotted owl, including nesting, roosting, foraging and dispersal. The minimum canopy cover required to maintain NRF habitat is 60%. Other habitat elements include large snags, coarse woody debris and a multi-layered canopy. 

Dispersal habitat provides for connectivity or "dispersal" across the landscape, allowing northern spotted owls to travel from suitable habitat to suitable habitat, providing the owl some degree of protection and some foraging opportunity. The minimum requirements for dispersal habitat include conifer stands with an average diameter of approximately 11 inches and 40%-60% canopy cover. Some dispersal units were over-cut to as low as 28% canopy cover in the O'Lickety Timber Sale, eliminating suitable northern spotted owl habitat on the stand level for many years to come. 

Blowdown in unit 61-1 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale. This unit was dispersal habitat, but the habitat was removed during implementation of the O'Lickety Timber Sale. Further reductions to canopy cover are occurring due to blowdown associated with heavy canopy reduction in the timber sale.

The BLM has taken responsibility for the over-cutting, saying it was a product of inappropriate tree marking, insufficient review of stand conditions, and inadequate coordination between silvicultural staff, wildlife biologists, and BLM timber marking crews. The end result was hundreds of acres of degraded habitat in the following four sales. 

  • Wagner-Anderson Timber Sale: This sale was bought by Boise Cascade, but it was subcontracted to Estremado Logging, a company based out of Gold Hill, OR.
  • Bald Lick Timber Sale: Bought and logged by Estremado Logging from Gold Hill, Oregon.
  • O'Lickety Timber Sale: Bought and logged by Murphy Company, corporate headquarters are in Eugene, OR.
  • Lick Stew Stewardship Project: Logged by Lomakatsi Ecological Services, Ashland, OR (the for-profit wing of the Lomakatsi Restoration Project).

The results of the Wagner-Anderson Timber Sale. Take note of the number of broken-topped snags from blowdown and the continuing mortality from drought stress and beetle infestations. Post-harvest mortality in unit 17-1 of the Wagner-Anderson Timber Sale has been significant. 
2015 Medford BLM Post-Harvest Monitoring Report

The BLM discovered that spotted owl habitat had been over-cut and illegally downgraded in July of 2014. Additionally, community members concerned about habitat conservation also brought to light occurrences of over-cutting. In response the BLM began a district-wide monitoring effort and recently released a report that worked to "determine if there was systemic failure in project implementation across the district or if the implementation failures found in the four projects were isolated cases." The report also explores the "potential implications with the district's spotted owl habitat baseline and the need for reinititation of past consultations." 

The report shows that between 25%-51% of NRF habitat proposed for "treat and maintain" logging prescriptions since 2008, was either illegally downgraded or removed. This includes timber sales extending from the western Cascade Mountains, to the dry forests of the Siskiyou, and the hills north and west of Grants Pass, Oregon on Medford District BLM lands. Unfortunately, this report arbitrarily excludes the four Applegate timber sales that triggered the monitoring efforts in the first place; thus, the actual extent of illegal northern spotted owl habitat downgrades on the district is significantly higher than is being reported by the BLM. In the report, the BLM claims that only 13 units across the district were found to have been over-cut, yet 38 units were over-cut in the Bald Lick, Lick Stew and O'Lickety Timber Sales alone.

Unit 97A of the Bald Lick Timber Sale. The unit was considered both NRF and dispersal habitat, the habitat was eliminated by BLM logging. Canopy gaps are expanding and canopy cover diminishing, as large pine trees have fallen in winter storms. The heavy canopy reductions that downgraded owl habitat also made the stand susceptible to blowdown. The newly exposed trees with poor height-to-crown ratios are falling in winter storms and under heavy snowloads.

The BLM's monitoring report has concluded that implementation failures were not systemic across the district; however, many critics point to the downgrading or removal of 25%-50% of all harvested NRF habitat as a clear pattern of implementation failure. The report identifies over a dozen units across the district — including all resource areas and 11 separate timber sales — that exceeded the approved northern spotted owl impacts. Even excluding the four Applegate sales, the problem was documented to have been widespread.

Over 75% of the acres harvested since 2008 have not been monitored for compliance with Endangered Species Act (ESA) consultation effects. How many more acres have been downgraded or eliminated that were not surveyed for this report? What is the true spotted owl baseline?
Blowdown in unit 64-1 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale.

Since logging was completed on the O'lickety Timber Sale, stand conditions have continued to deteriorate. Canopies already compromised have been made susceptible to blowdown, drought stess and increased beetle infestations. In numerous units a significant number of trees can be found up-rooted, and many trees, especially pine trees with poor height-to-crown ratios, have snapped off under the weight of wet, heavy, El Nino snowloads. The result has been a continued decline of canopy cover in units already overcut by the BLM during the O'Lickety Timber Sale. Large tree retention targets of 16-25 trees per acre were already not being met in several units, and as large trees fall or break under heavy snow, the deficiency becomes more pronounced. The over-cutting of O'lickety has undermined the resilience of the effected forest stands. This condition is known as "accelerated overstory mortality," which can be triggered by the over-cutting of forest stands. The effect is a continuing loss of canopy, habitat complexity, and large tree retention, along with an increase in ground fuels. 
Canopy conditions in uncut, late-seral NRF habitat in the Little Applegate watershed. The photograph was taken in unit 35-32 of the Nedsbar Timber Sale, a unit proposed to be logged to 40% canopy closure. Unit 35-32 should be canceled to protect late-seral and northern spotted owl habitat values. 
Canopy conditions in unit 64-1 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale. The unit used to be considered NRF habitat. The unit was badly over-cut and is now suffering from severe blowdown. The combined effect has been the removal of northern spotted owl habitat and a loss of forest resilience. Impacts to the long-term trajectory of this stand and many others in the O'Lickety Timber Sale have been severe.  

The continued loss of canopy in O'Lickety Timber Sale units will drastically increase fire hazards in the long term. The combined effects of soil disturbance from yarding operations and increased sunlight from canopy loss will trigger a significant increase in woody understory vegetation, including regenerating conifers, hardwoods and brush species. The many blowdown trees will also contribute pulses of fine fuels to the forest floor. Fuel loading and fuel laddering will increase; wind speeds and ambient temperatures will also increase; while fuel moisture decreases due to the exposed, post-logging conditions. These conditions can lead to high levels of fire severity in future wildland fires and extend fire seasons. 

Fire resilience has been drastically effected as large, fire-resistant trees are logged or continue to blowdown. The condition will create dense, even-age stands regenerating from logging disturbances and canopy loss. These stands are highly susceptible to high severity fire.
Increased fuel loading from blowdown in unit 61-1, O'Lickety Timber Sale.

The recent BLM monitoring report also identifies numerous units suffering from significant blowdown. Nearly all these units are located on the Ashland Resource Area and were also over-cut during project implementation. It appears that a pattern is developing that correlates heavy canopy reduction and northern spotted owl habitat impacts to blowdown and continued habitat degradation. This pattern is especially troubling given the claims by the BLM and USFWS, that short-term impacts to northern spotted owl habitat from commercial logging will be offset by long-term gains. They also often claim that canopy conditions will close over the course of the next twenty years due to increased vigor in the remaining trees. This conclusion is questionable when blowdown, drought stress, mechanical damage, and other impacts associated with logging operations create a self-reinforcing pattern of canopy loss, mortality, habitat degradation, heavy fuel loading and structural simplification. 

It is possible that the O'Lickety and Bald Lick timber sales generated unanticipated "take" (i.e. kill) of northern spotted owls. Consultation on these sales should be re-initiated by USFWS and current conditions reevaluated to identify areas that may have suffered further habitat downgrades due to accelerated mortality and significant winter blowdown. 

Portions of the Bald Lick, Wagner-Anderson and O'Lickety Timber Sales are clearly experiencing accelerated overstory mortality. This is leading to further undocumented reductions in northern spotted owl habitat. These continuing losses in northern spotted owl habitat are currently not accounted for in the northern spotted owl habitat baseline that informs the analysis of impacts and consultation of pending timber sales like Nedsbar. 

Unfortunately, despite the recent illegal BLM logging and its unintended consequences on northern spotted owl habitat conditions in the Little Applegate watershed, the agency has recently identified numerous units in the Nedsbar Timber Sale that will be downgraded from NRF to dispersal habitat, or downgraded from dispersal to non-habitat, further impacting an already compromised northern spotted owl habitat baseline. Unfortunately, rather than demonstrate that the Medford District BLM can "treat and maintain" habitat in their timber sale program, the agency has decided to do the opposite and continue degrading owl habitat in the area. The agency is focused on providing large volumes of timber to the industry, not restoring, preserving or protecting the owl or fire resilient forests.

For more information or to read the 2015 Medford BLM Post Harvest Monitoring Report.
Blowdown and canopy loss in unit 64-2 of the O'Lickety Timber Sale.