Friday, July 28, 2017

The Pickett West Timber Sale: Old-Growth Logging Disguised as "Restoration"


Old-growth forest in unit 3-11 is targeted for logging in the Pickett West Timber Sale. The stand is an important remnant habitat providing connectivity in a highly altered watershed. Thompson Creek is heavily fragmented by clearcut logging and simplified plantations stands. Unit 3-11 is located adjacent to widespread plantation management and provides a necessary corridor of old forest habitat. The tree with the pink flag around its trunk supports an active Red Tree Vole nest, an important food source for the Northern spotted owl.
The Pickett West Timber Sale is perhaps the worst old-growth logging project proposed by the BLM in southern Oregon for many years. The project is proposing to log some of the last remnants of old forest surrounding the communities of Selma, Merlin, Galice, Wilderville, Murphy and North Applegate. The Pickett West Timber Sale also proposes significant logging in tributaries of the Wild and Scenic Rogue River between Grants Pass and Graves Creek.


The band of late successional forest at the center of the photograph is units 3-9 and 3-11. The high brushy summit is Kerby Peak.
Despite standing above our homes and communities very few have visited these last intact forests, now targeted by the BLM for logging. They are not the iconic wilderness landscapes of the west, instead they are the backdrop to our communities. They also represent the charm and beauty that is bringing people to our region. They are the last fragments of natural, fire resilient, old forest in our rural communities; they are salmon streams; they are Northern Spotted Owl strongholds; they are the last small corridors of intact forest threading our low-elevation habitats together, and they are islands of habitat in otherwise fragmented landscapes. The fact that they are the last, makes them disproportionately important to our communities, to our fisheries, and to our wildlife.
  
A broad-based coalition of conservation organizations, recreation enthusiasts, businesses, fishing organizations, rural residents and citizens across the region will be joining together to protect these last intact stands and oppose the Pickett West Timber Sale. We will not watch these last stands fall to the whine of the chainsaw, instead we will work to preserve them, respect them, and enjoy them, as they define who we are as Southern Oregonians.

Roughly half the Pickett West Timber Sale is located in old-growth stands between 150 and 240 years old. Unit 3-10 in the Pickett West Timber Sale is 160 years old.

The Pickett West Timber Sale targets old-growth stands throughout southern Oregon for heavy industrial logging. Half the units in the timber sale are located in old-growth stands between 150 and 240 year old. These old, complex forests are highly fire resistant, provide important forest habitat, and are also increasingly rare, especially at low-elevations and adjacent to local communities. These stands protect our viewsheds, our clean water, our wildlife habitat and buffer our communities from the effects of uncharacteristic wildfire, while providing accessible and important recreational opportunities like the Thompson Overlook Trail, Applegate Ridge Trail, and Hellgate Canyon on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.

Ironically, the BLM claims these highly industrial logging treatments are "restorative" in nature. Somehow, reducing canopy cover to 30%, rendering important Northern Spotted Owl habitat "unsuitable," building new roads, logging large, old-growth trees and drastically increasing fuel loads in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is being promoted as "restoration." In reality, it is a timber grab intended to mislead the public into thinking that old forest logging is necessary to increase forest resilience and restore the natural role of fire.


A "tractor swing road" will be built through this grove of large, old trees in unit 4-1. The trees in this photograph will be logged to provide access for yarding actvities and a tractor swing road will be built through the center of the photograph.

The manipulation of science and the misrepresentation of proposed industrial logging treatments as "restoration" constitutes a new low. The Pickett West project has been designed around — in BLM jargon it is "tiered to" — the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative's ill-conceived Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy (RBCFRS). The strategy encourages our federal land management agencies to industrially log forests across the Rogue River basin. The strategy proposes to log 2.1 million acres across the Rogue River drainage in the next twenty years, increasing the number of acres logged on federal land to six times the current level.

The RBCFRS identifies an excess of closed-canopy, late-seral forest — a finding that contradicts years of ecological research in the area — and is encouraging the agencies to convert closed-canopy, late-seral, and old-growth forest into open canopied, low density stands. The simplistic idea is that much of southern Oregon was once dominated by open, low density forest with a frequent, low-severity fire regime. By logging old, closed canopy stands, the BLM says it is hoping to create relatively stable and more fire resilient forests; however, the outcome of logging old-growth forest to 30% canopy cover will dramatically degrade habitat values and increase fuel loads. Woody understory species will capitalize on the newly created conditions and colonize canopy gaps, creating dense woody thickets and increasing fire hazards. 


The old-growth forest canopy in unit 3-11. Canopy cover in this stand is currently 91%. The BLM is proposing to remove two-thirds of the overstory, reducing canopy cover to as low as 30%.

With each large, old tree removed, resilience to wildfire is reduced. With the drastic canopy cover reduction proposed in the "restoration thinning" prescriptions, highly flammable, young vegetation will proliferate and replace large, fire resistant trees.

To make matters worse, the mythical "open forests" appear to have been greatly overestimated by those promoting this strategy. Yes, we did historically have open forests in southern Oregon, but we also had a lot of closed-canopy forests as well. Much of our region is affected by a mixed-severity fire regime, a fire regime that creates diverse habitat types, including significant closed-canopy forest habitats, open canopied forest and deciduous woodlands as well as large, fire-mediated brush fields in southern Oregon. The world-renowned biodiversity of the Siskiyou Mountains is partially dependent on this seemingly chaotic mosaic of stand conditions, habitat types and fire histories. 

The baseline conditions and reference ecosystems used to promote these "restoration thinning" treatments have been proven inaccurate by numerous local historic vegetation studies. In reality, those studying historic vegetation, interpreting General Land Office surveys  and conducting tree ring research across the region, have found highly variable conditions, highly variable fire return intervals and a mosaic of habitat types across the landscape. 
(Hickman 2011, Dipaolo 2015, Baker 2011, Muir 2006, Duren 2012, Agee 1993, Willis and Stuart 1994.)

Numerous recent historic vegetation studies have found a much broader distribution of closed-canopy forest types than open forest habitats (Hickman 2011, Dipaolo 2015, Baker 2011, Muir 2006, Duren 2012) in Southwestern Oregon. Often, but not always open conditions have been predicated by particular soil types and accentuated by the disturbance history. This is especially true as you transition across the area, from the more arid interior valleys to the more moist habitats in the Western Siskiyou Mountains around the lower Applegate River, Rogue River, and Illinois River watersheds, all within the planning area.


Old-growth, closed-canopied stands like this one in unit 3-11 of the Pickett West Timber Sale are prioritized for treatment and targeted with "restoration thinning" in the Pickett West Timber Sale The prescription calls for 30% canopy cover, converting this stand to an "open" canopy condition.
The RBCFRS is encouraging the BLM to target largely intact, old forest habitats, and the widespread logging of old forest in the proposed Pickett West Timber Sale is a direct result. The strategy requires the removal of large, old-growth trees to meet strict and scientifically unjustified canopy cover targets in an attempt to recreate open forest in habitats it likely never existed.

The strategy also prioritizes the "treatment" of late-seral and old-growth stands over young stands with what they call a "priority multiplier." The "priority multiplier" weighs old forest habitats twice as heavily as younger, more altered stands. The strategy designed by the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative and the local Nature Conservancy has provided a greenwash for the BLM, who claims an ecological benefit from industrial, old forest logging, while ignoring the impact of road development, large tree removal, soil disturbance from yarding activities, invasive species introduction, forest fragmentation, impacts to the understory plant community, and increasing fuel loads.

The RBCFRS also promotes heavy industrial logging within nearly all federal land allocations, including Inventoried Roadless Areas, Late Successional Reserves, Botanical Areas, Research Natural Areas, and other important conservation-based land management designations. The implementation of the Rogue Basin Cohesive Forest Restoration Strategy is pushing the BLM towards logging older, more intact forest stands and in sensitive habitats.


Unit 3-11 at the headwaters of Thompson Creek contains naturally fire resistant, late-seral habitat. The stand is not in need of "restoration." The current stand condition only contributes to complex, late-seral habitat conditions, fire resilience and connectivity.

Recently, I have been hiking units all around the Thompson Creek watershed in Selma, Oregon. The BLM is proposing to log nearly every accessible old-growth stand in the watershed, and many of the Pickett West project's worst units are located directly above the rural community of Selma, Oregon. 

Below is a photo essay depicting stand conditions in units I hiked last weekend. These units are proposed for "restoration thinning," and in many cases over half the overstory canopy will be removed. The proposed logging will permanently impact ecological values and nearby rural communities. The vast majority of the Pickett West Timber Sale would produce unacceptable impacts and the entire sale should be canceled.

Unit 3-9 
Canopy conditions in the old forest portion of unit 3-9. This is currently an open canopy and opening it up even further will impact the health of the forest.

Unit 3-9 is located at the headwaters of Thompson Creek. Half the unit consists of unlogged, mid-seral forest. The stand is in the process of self-thinning and is developing habitat complexity through blowdown and other forms of mortality. The western portion of the stand is complex, old forest with stands between 24" and 56" in diameter. A small portion of the stand has been logged, but many old trees were retained and the canopy has recovered in the preceding years. The BLM has documented the stand to be 160 years old, but many of the stand's largest trees are likely much older. 
 
The mid-seral portion of unit 3-9 is healthy and developing complex structure.

The BLM claims the stand is dispersal habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. This designation is clearly an error as all the higher quality habitat characteristics of Nesting, Roosting and Foraging habitat are present. The stand is located within a Critical Habitat Unit for the Northern Spotted Owl and was designated as Late Successional Reserve forest in BLM's 2016 Resource Management Plan (RMP). 

The unit should be canceled to protect the stand's late-seral conditions and habitat connectivity in the Thompson Creek watershed. 

Unit 3-10
 
The unlogged portion of unit 3-10 contains higher levels of shading and, thus, less understory fuel.

Unit 3-10 has been previously logged, but contains many large, old trees between 18" and 60" in diameter. The stand was previously selectively logged, creating a dense, shrubby fuel load in the understory. The BLM has documented the stand to be 160 years old and it does, in fact, contain many old-growth habitat characteristics. Thinning this stand will only compound the current fuel loading by opening the canopy and disturbing soils, triggering an aggressive understory response and an increase in fuel loading.


The previous logging in unit 3-9 resulted in heavy understory fuel. 
The BLM claims the stand is dispersal habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. This designation is clearly an error as all the higher quality habitat characteristics of Nesting, Roosting and Foraging habitat are present. The stand is located within a Critical Habitat Unit for the Northern Spotted Owl and within forest designated as Late Successional Reserve in the 2016 RMP. 

The unit should be canceled to maintain late-seral habitat conditions and the canopy allowed to close, suppressing understory fuels that have exploded in growth in response to previous commercial thinning treatments. 


Unit 3-11
 
Incredible old forest in the northeastern portion of unit 3-11. The unit is among the worst in the entire Pickett West Timber Sale.

Unit 3-11 is among the worst timber sale units I have hiked in the Pickett West Timber Sale. The unit is a classic, low-elevation, Western Siskiyou old-growth forest. The forest contains complex structural conditions, a multi-tiered canopy, large, old trees, high quality snags, large downed wood and other late-seral characteristics. The BLM has documented the stand to be 160 years old, but many of the stand's large trees are likely much older. 

Much of the stand is dominated by large, old Douglas fir among a diverse mixture of live oak, tanoak, madrone, dogwood, bigleaf maple and a few scattered sugar pine. Along the small draws that drain the unit, the understory is often lush and abundant with vanilla leaf, red huckleberry, tangles of vine maple, and populations of Hartweg's wild ginger. 

The BLM claims the stand is dispersal habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. This designation is clearly an error as all the habitat characteristics of high quality (RA-32) habitat are present. The stand is also located within a Critical Habitat Unit for the Northern Spotted Owl and was designated as Late Successional Reserve in the 2016 RMP.  
The BLM claims unit 3-11 is dispersal habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pickett West Environmental Assessment. In reality, unit 3-11 is complex, old-growth forest providing high quality Nesting, Roosting and Foraging habitat.
Much of the stand is old-growth forest with trees between 24" and 65" in diameter. Three large trees in the unit are documented to contain active Red Tree Vole nest sites. These sites should be protected by 10-acre, no-cut buffers. These buffers will exclude the vast majority of the unit from treatment and the unit should be canceled. 

The unit is surrounded by plantation stands and along with unit 3-9 provides very important connectivity habitat for late-seral species from the ridgeline above to the upper portions of Thompson Creek. 

The unit should be canceled to protect old-growth habitat values, maintain connectivity in the Thompson Creek watershed, sustain habitat complexity and to retain naturally occurring fire resistance. 

Unit 4-1
Groupings of large, old trees are scattered across unit 4-1.

Unit 4-1 is located on a forested knob in Upper Thompson Creek. The BLM has documented the stand to be 140 years old, but many large trees are likely much older. Two clear cohorts (stand ages) colonize the stand and create distinct diameter classes. A portion of the stand contains relatively even-aged Douglas fir trees between 18" and 30" in diameter. Groupings and groves of large, old-growth trees between 40" and 52" in diameter grow scattered across the unit. I found one of these large, old trees has been documented to support an active Red Tree Vole nest and would require a 10-acre no-cut buffer. 

Two separate sections of tractor swing road are proposed to be developed at the upper portion of the unit, fragmenting habitat, damaging soils and encouraging an expansion of unauthorized OHV use. A single track trail currently exists in the location of one tractor swing road. This trail should be designated for non-motorized use and maintained as part of the non-motorized trail system.

Unit 4-1 and the tractor swing roads proposed to access the unit should be canceled to protect a relatively large block of undisturbed, complex, mid- to late-seral forest. The unit does not currently need "treatment" to maintain healthy habitat conditions. 


Unit 4-1 is located on the ridgeline in the foreground of this photograph. A new tractor swing road would be built across the ridge accessing the uncut forest on the ridgeline's eastern face.

Please contact your local BLM officials and ask them to cancel the Pickett West Timber Sale and protect all old forest over 150 years old in the Pickett West Planning Area. 


Contact the BLM:
Field Manager, Allen Bollschweiler 
abollsch@blm.gov

District Manager, Elizabeth Burghard
eburghar@blm.gov

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