Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Zig-Zag Creek, Hellgate Canyon and the Pickett West Timber Sale: Diverse Ancient Forests Under Attack!

Unit 10-1 of the Pickett West Timber Sale is located on Zig-Zag Creek in beautiful old-growth forest habitat. The unit would be logged to 30% canopy cover under the BLM's so-called "forest restoration" prescriptions.
The Pickett West Timber Sale is a massive BLM timber sale proposed by the Grants Pass Resource Area. The proposed project area extends from southern Oregon's lower Applegate River, to the forests outside Selma, and the wild tributary streams of the mighty Rogue River. The timber sale includes 69 units between 150 and 240 years old. Prescriptions in these units vary, but many would be logged to as low as 30% canopy cover; many large old trees would be removed to meet canopy cover and basal area targets. Ironically, the BLM has defined these heavy industrial logging treatments as "forest restoration," a term now so broadly applied that it has virtually no meaning. Unfortunately, the outcome of such logging will be far from restorative and many of the forests proposed for logging need no restoration at all.

I recently visited a few units in the Hellgate Canyon section of the Rogue River. Directly above this iconic southern Oregon landscape, and adjacent to the Wild and Scenic Rogue River Corridor, the BLM is proposing to log diverse, ancient forests between 150 and 230 years old. Some of these units will be visible from Hog Creek Boat Ramp and Hellgate Canyon Overlook, both are very scenic viewpoints in the highly popular and economically important Hellgate Canyon.

The area is a diverse and relatively intact habitat, consisting of the rugged Hellgate Canyon, broad serpentine flats, sunlit oak woodlands and ancient old-growth forests. I hiked Pickett West units 9-1, 9-2, 9-3 and 10-1 in Zig-Zag Creek, Little Zig-Zag Creek and Blue Canyon. The Zig-Zag and Little Zig-Zag drainages are some of the most intact tributaries in the Hellgate Canyon portion of the Rogue River. Zig-Zag Creek, in particular, is not only highly diverse, but incredibly beautiful, as the stream runs through deep box canyons beneath dark outcrops, oak woodlands and towering old-growth forests. The BLM portions of Zig-Zag Creek need no "restoration" and surely do not need the old-growth logging proposed in the Pickett West Timber Sale.

The Zig-Zag Creek watershed is a diverse and rugged mosaic of forest, woodland, grassland and rock outcrop. The conifer forest in this photograph is identified as unit 10-1 in the Pickett West Timber Sale. 

Zig-Zag Creek: Unit 10-1
Zig-Zag Creek climbs quickly from its confluence with the Rogue River at Hellgate Canyon and into a deep, cool box canyon. Tall bluffs topped in squat oak and the golden grass of summer extend from the clear flowing stream into ancient groves of old-growth Douglas fir, sugar pine, madrone and tanoak. The stream itself is narrowly confined by tall outcrops of bedrock, creating a rugged canyon of clear pools, cascades and lush riparian vegetation. The area is highly diverse and contains significant levels of heterogeneity as plant communities transition from one to another.   
As the long series of bluffs in lower Zig-Zag Creek give way to towering conifer forests, unit 10-1 of the Pickett West Timber Sale reaches from the canyon bottom to the ridge above. The units consist of massive old forest, including sugar pine up to five feet in diameter on incredibly steep, mountainous slopes. According to the BLM the stand is 230 years old. Trees within the stand are likely much older than 230 years, but the general stand condition is clearly old-growth. 

The oldest trees in the stand are relatively well spaced, with a complex secondary canopy of hardwoods, namely madrone, tanoak and live oak. The forest grows in a diverse, patchy mosaic with complex groupings colonizing the steep mountainous terrain. The closed canopy groves protect relatively mesic understory communities of vanilla leaf, Oregon grape and poison oak.

Ancient pine and fir dominate unit 10-1 with a secondary canopy of madrone, tanoak and live oak. The stand is healthy, resilient and provides exceptional habitat for late-seral species like the northern spotted owl, Pacific fisher and red tree vole. In fact, the large Douglas fir at the left hand side of the photograph supports a red tree vole nest. Red tree voles are a major food source for the northern spotted owl.

Numerous small seasonal gulches dissect the unit and many trees have been documented to contain red tree vole nests. Red tree voles are a small rodent living high in the canopy of large Douglas fir trees. Red tree voles, like the northern spotted owl who utilizes the little vole as a major food source, are habitat specialists requiring old Douglas fir trees for their entire lifecycle. They eat Douglas fir needles, line their nest with Douglas fir needles and live in the canopy of old, gnarled Douglas fir trees. They appear to be particularly abundant in this stand and their habitat should be protected. High-quality red tree vole habitat is, in fact, high quality Northern Spotted Owl habitat. Unit 10-1 is identified as Nesting, Roosting and Foraging (NRF) habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl, but the habitat is proposed for removal. This means habitat that currently supports all portions of the owl's lifecycle will no longer provide usable habitat to the owl after logging has occurred.

The unit is proposed for "forest restoration" logging, meaning the stand could be logged to as low as 30% canopy cover. Logging the stand to this level of canopy would require the removal of many large, old-growth trees. Logging this stand will also reduce habitat complexity, destroy the currently multi-layered canopy structure so important to the Northern Spotted Owl and red tree vole. Finally, logging large, old fire-resistant trees in this stand will only reduce the stand's resistance to fire. Opening the canopy will also encourage a dense understory growth of regenerating hardwoods, conifers and shrubs, creating ladder fuels that will overtime drastically increase fuel loading and fire risks.


Unit 10-1 contains naturally resilient and highly complex old-growth forest habitat. The stand is structurally complex, compositionally diverse and in need of no "restoration."

The upper portion of the unit extends to the ridgeline, where it makes an abrupt and interesting transition with serpentine soil types, open grassland and Jeffery pine savanna. A half-mile of new road is being proposed by the BLM to access the unit. The road would extend across a small stream and over the currently un-roaded and spectacular serpentine ridgeline dividing Zig Zag Creek from Serpentine Creek.

The goal of "forest restoration" logging in this stand is to convert the currently closed-canopy, old-growth stand into an open, late-seral forest. Unfortunately, converting this stand to open conditions will provide no benefit to the habitat for late-seral species, the health of the forest, or the resilience of the stand to fire. At the same time logging in this stand will create numerous cumulative impacts including the loss of large, old trees, disruption of snag and large wood recruitment, impacts to water quality in Zig-Zag Creek, a loss of habitat complexity, and the removal of Northern Spotted Owl habitat.

Unit 10-1 is a mosaic of forest habitats including closed canopied mixed conifer forest with a two-tier canopy structure. Massive old growth and mature conifers rise above a secondary canopy of hardwoods such as tanoak, live oak, madrone and pacific dogwood.

The project will also create visual impacts to the Wild and Scenic Rogue River in the popular Hellgate Canyon. Unit 10-1 will be visible from both the Hog Creek Boat Ramp and the Hellgate Canyon Overlook, both very popular recreation sites and scenic vista points along the Galice-Merlin Road. The recreation and economic activity provided by Hellgate Canyon is a significant boost to surrounding communities. The units logged to as low as 30% canopy cover will create severe impacts to these important viewsheds, degrading the quality of recreational experience in the Hellgate Canyon.

Little Zig-Zag Creek: Units 9-2 & 9-3

Unit 9-3 of the Pickett West Timber Sale on Little Zig-Zag Creek. According to the BLM the stand is 190 years old.

Little Zig-Zag Creek, although not as dramatic as Zig-Zag Creek to the east, contains important, relatively undisturbed habitat including serpentine soils, old forest and oak woodland. The area, like Zig-Zag Creek is very diverse and relatively intact. Much of the forest in the area appears unentered by industrial logging. According to the BLM, stands in units 9-2 and 9-3 are 190 years old. Trees over 40" are found in the stand and portions of the stand contain classic, low elevation old-growth habitat. 

Much of the forest is dominated by Douglas fir, with scattered populations of black oak, white oak, madrone and pine. The forest borders oak woodlands and broad serpentine flats colonized by grass, buckbrush and scattered pine before it drops into the canyon of the Rogue River.

Units 9-2 & 9-3, although predominantly closed canopy stands, contain significant diversity in structure and composition. In some areas windthrow has created small canopy gaps and open stands. The stand currently supports Nesting, Roosting and Foraging (NRF) habitat for the northern spotted owl. 

Stands like this one in unit 9-3 of the Pickett West Timber Sale are expressing old-growth characteristics. Downed trees are building complexity on the forest floor and creating small canopy openings. Understory conditions are grassy and diverse. Although closed canopied the forest is diverse, resilient to natural disturbance, relatively open and structurally diverse. The stand is developing late-seral conditions naturally and is not in need of "restoration."

Proposed "forest restoration" logging treatments will reduce the canopy cover in unit 9-3 to as low as 30%. This will convert habitat that currently supports the entire lifecycle of the northern spotted owl into unusable habitat cut to below the threshold for "suitable"  habitat. Logging these stands to as low as 30% canopy cover will also reduce the stand's resistance to high-severity fire by encouraging dense shrubby understory growth, reducing habitat complexity and removing many old, fire resistant trees. The logging will also disrupt snag and large wood recruitment starving the stand of future inputs by removing large portions of the stand for commercial harvest.

Blue Canyon: Unit 9-1
 
Unit 9-1 is the forested ridgeline at the center of this photograph. Notice the incredible diversity of habitat types including oak woodlands, open pine stands, serpentine grassland and closed-canopy old-growth forest. Logging unit 9-1 would provide no ecological benefit and should be canceled.

Blue Canyon is located west of Little Zig Zag Creek in the Hellgate Canyon portion of the Rogue River. The stream is geologically and topographically diverse, including broad serpentine flats with oak and pine habitats, rock outcrops, relatively recent burn patches, chaparral and steep conifer covered ridges. Unit 9-1 is located on a northwest facing slope overlooking the big grassy flats on lower Blue Canyon. 

At the top of the broad meadows buckbrush thickets, grassy oak woodlands and open pine stands transition into lush fern-filled forests of Douglas fir. The stand is structurally diverse with large old-growth trees, mature groves of fir, a rich understory of vanilla leaf, a multitude of ferns, downed trees and hazel thickets. The majority of the area is green and verdant and resilient to natural disturbances such as fire, insect infestations, and the effects of climate change. 

According to the BLM, the stand is 190 years old and represents Nesting,  Roosting and Foraging (NRF) habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. Roughly a quarter mile of new road is proposed to be built on the currently unroaded ridgeline above. The road will impact intact old forest and would facilitate logging units 9-1, 9-2, & 9-3. 

Unit 9-1 is proposed for "Density Management" logging and is marked with a  "group select" prescription, meaning small isolated groupings would be logged throughout the stand, leaving some areas untreated. The volume produced will be minimal and the benefit of such logging is highly questionable. The old stand is currently healthy and unit 9-1 should be canceled from the Pickett West Timber Sale. 

Unit 9-1 is healthy, diverse, fire resistant and does not need "restoration" or "density management" treatments. The photograph shows a "group select" mark. Roughly half the old trees in this grove will be removed. Trees marked with red paint will be retained, while unmarked trees will be removed.
Protect our economy and our old forest. 
Oppose Pickett West!

The treatments proposed in Pickett West are not restorative in nature, but rather represent an industrial approach to timber production. Logging old-growth stands and removing northern spotted owl habitat cannot be described as restoration, in fact, it can only be described as habitat degradation, fragmentation and forest simplification. The heterogeneity on this landscape is already expressed, due to a combination of diverse geology, stand history, fire history, and aspect. The complexity and value of habitat found in the Rogue River Canyon should be maintained for the region's fisheries, recreation economy, and ecological values.

The habitat found in the Hellgate Canyon portion of the Rogue River attracts visitors from around the globe, looking for a beautiful outdoor experience, incredible river vistas and intact forest habitats to explore. The fisherfolk, whitewater rafters, recreational drivers, hikers, botanists, and others come to this canyon enjoy the place for its scenic beauty. Logging these forests for O&C timber production is shortsighted and counterproductive to the local economy. Recreation on the Rogue River is worth $35 million dollars annually and three out of every four lodging guests in the Grants Pass/Merlin area are associated with recreation on the Rogue River. The economic value of recreation is worth far more than the Pickett West Timber Sale and the logs it will produce. Some forests are worth far more standing. The forests of the Rogue River Canyon surely represent a more sustainable and vibrant asset to our community as intact, old growth forest, than two by fours.


Hellgate Canyon at the confluence of Zig-Zag Creek. Unit 9-1 is visible on the forested knob at the upper left corner of the photograph.

Please contact the Grants Pass BLM and ask for the following amendments to the Pickett West Timber Sale.

Support Alternative 3 with the following amendments:


  • Cancel all commercial logging units over 150 years old.
  • Cancel all new road construction.
  • Cancel all so-called "forest restoration" logging treatments that will reduce canopy cover to as low as 30%.
  • "Maintain" all northern spotted owl habitat.
  • Protect the proposed Applegate Ridge Trail and build no roads over the proposed trail corridor. Cancel units 13-8 and 15-11. 
  • Cancel all Hellgate Canyon units including units 9-1, 9-2, 9-3, 10-1, 10-2 and 15-1.


Submit comments to: 
Grant Pass Interagency Office/Don Ferguson
2164 NE Spalding Ave. 
Grants Pass, Oregon 97526
-or-
blm_or_pwest@blm.gov 

This map shows the Hellgate Canyon units of the Pickett West Timber Sale. The red lines show proposed new road construction. The green polygons show Pickett West Timber Sale units, and the light blue shows riparian reserves within those units. Units 9-1, 9-2, 9-3, 10-1, 10-2, and 15-1 should be canceled from the Pickett West Timber Sale.



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