I'm walking down an old logging road with Asante Riverwind, the local organizer for the Sierra Club. We're stalking the perimeter of a recent timber sale that his organization is challenging in federal court.
Outside of a small sale of lodgepole pine, the Bass Unit is the first sale in the Five Buttes Project to be "marked" for harvest by loggers. We've arrived during a small window of time in which people like Riverwind can see exactly which trees are going to be logged before they are felled. In this case, the Forest Service has marked trees to be retained with orange spray paint. These are primarily trees over 20 inches around. All other trees are to be harvested, including some of the biggest that are marked in blue.
These are trees that Riverwind and his club's biologist Marilyn Miller, want to show me. According to the Sierra Club's lawsuit there are trees up to three feet in diameter slated for harvest in the Five Buttes Project - something that is specifically prohibited in old growth stands known as LSR's under the Northwest Forest Plan with just a few exceptions.
In this case, Forest Service managers say the large trees are being removed to improve habitat for the endangered spotted owl. In this addition by subtraction scenario, removing some large, fire resistant trees is expected to foster better growing conditions for the remaining trees, which will improve long-term habitat for the owl. But there is also intensive harvest of larger diameter Ponderosa pines in areas that aren't known for spotted owl habitat, which is being undertaken in the name of forest "restoration."
Environmentalists say the entire Five Buttes project is just a bold grab for timber and part of a larger effort by the Forest Service at the behest of Bush administration to boost timber production on public lands - payback for the timber industry's unwavering support of the president.
"It's a timber grab. The agency needs to call it what it is. It's a timber grab masquerading as restoration," said Josh Laughlin, conservation director at the Cascadia Wildlands Project, which is fighting the sale with the Sierra Club.
An Unhealthy Forest
It was the peak of tourist season in late June 2003 when firefighters responded to a wildfire near a campground at Davis Lake, a popular bass and trout fishery on the eastern slope of the Cascades less than an hour from Bend and Sunriver. Within a matter of hours the fire raced through the dense understory of second-generation lodgepole and white pine. By the time firefighters contained the blaze, more than 21,000 acres had gone up in smoke. The entire lake, surrounding campgrounds, and nearby homes had been evacuated.
Vacations weren't the only things interrupted. According to a follow-up report from Forest Service six spotted owl-nesting sites were located in the fire perimeter. At least one of those sites had an active nesting pair and nestling, which the report notes was unlikely to have survived the conflagration.
For many in the forest service and the timber industry, the fire served as a cautionary tale about what can happen when forests are allowed to become crowded with small, fire prone vegetation. The fire burned hotter and faster than what even many seasoned firefighters had seen in the past - a fire so hot that it created its own weather system.
One widely circulated tale recounted the experience of a pair of Deschutes County deputies who were nearly stranded on the shoreline of Davis Lake as the fire closed in. As the story goes, the deputies were trying to load a wave runner onto a trailer when a mini tornado of fire came dancing across the shoreline and scooped the Waverunner out of the water and tossed it into the air.
The deputies escaped in a pick up truck outrunning the fire in a Hollywood-esque retreat. It was a dramatic example of bizarre fire behavior and, to forest managers, the lesson was clear: something had to be done about the fuel loads on the national forests.
"What we learned from fires like the Davis and the B and B (complex) is that we've been having more and larger wildfires in Oregon and really throughout the Interior West in the last couple of years...This isn't just a Deschutes problem. It's a problem that we're seeing in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana where there is an increasing progression of disease and dead trees," said Sue Olson, a spokeswoman for the Deschutes National Forest.
The Politics of Science
About a half mile from the car Riverwind and I stop to look at a cluster of trees that our companion Marilyn Miller identifies as a good bird nesting site. Holes up and down the trunk of a snag are evidence of woodpecker activity. Most of the trees are marked in blue or have no mark at all indicating they will soon be felled. We march on through the forest with Riverwind pointing out signs of relatively recent fire activity - something he says contradicts the Forest Service's assertion that the Five Buttes area needs to be thinned because it hasn't burned, at least not in a healthy way for generations.
As we make our way through the forest, I'm struck by the lack of small diameter lodge pole and fir. It's a relatively open stand dominated by small and medium diameter ponderosa. Riverwind soon points out a pair of larger trees.
As with most other places we saw on the Bass, wherever there are two large trees in close proximity one of the two is marked for harvest.
This is the largest tree we've seen yet. Riverwind fetches a tape measure from his pocket and presses the tip of the tape into the tree trunk and circles-just a shade under 24.5 inches.
On nearly any other forest in Eastern Washington or Montana a tree of this age and size would be off limits to harvest. The fact that it's being targeted under a fire reduction and habitat restoration sale is ridiculous, said Riverwind.
They also believe that it is illegal under the Northwest Forest Plan, which is designed to protect old growth forest habitat for endangered species like the Northern Spotted Owl, which according to the agency's own survey's has about 10 historic owl territories in the project area.
"The federal court arena is very much stacked against conservation and citizen complaints. You have to really show egregious violations of federal law, which is not hard to do with this agency - though it's still not easy to win a lawsuit. So we look very carefully at what we will take to court," Riverwind said.
With Five Buttes, he said the Sierra Club believes it has an "open and shut case."
Forest Service Spokeswoman Olson said she wasn't allowed to comment on the lawsuit. But she defended the Five Buttes project as a scientifically sound management scheme that is driven by forest health concerns. Opponents said the real motivation is a push to get more timber production from the national forests.
An April memo from Northwest Regional Forester Linda Goodman appears to support that idea. In the memo (see sidebar) Goodman likens the national forests to a messy closet and urges managers to do some "tidying up."
"The President and Congress have given us an additional $24.7 million dollars to use for our fuels management and timber program. These dollars come with an expectation for us to increase our timber volume for the Northwest Forest Plan and also the east-side Forests," Goodman wrote.
In fact, the memo continues, the agency's Northwest region plans to increase its overall timber production from 520 million board feet last year to 675 million this year and 800 million board feet by 2008 - a 50 percent increase over two years.
Olson said the timber targets are real but they're not driving projects like Five Buttes. Moreover, she said, that while they represent an increase, they are in fact in line with the targets laid out by the Northwest Forest Plan in the mid-1990s.
"There isn't so much a timber driven aspect," Olson said. "What we have here is a discussion going on at the local forest level and the regional (level) and in Washington (D.C.) of keeping our promise that we made with the Northwest Forest Plan in the 1990s and that does tie to timber volume. So yes, we hear from the Washington offices and from the forest supervisors and we are all part of that discussion. It's not just top down."
Project leader Marcy Boehme said assertions that Five Buttes is being driven from outside the local level are off the mark. Boehme, who has a background in biology, said the project is being driven by forest health concerns - not economic ones. While there are some larger trees being harvested as part of the project, Boehme said the trees are being taken to promote the "resiliency" of the remaining trees against the very real threats of disease and wildfire.
"This project was designed by biologists...and biologists are the one's who are the most emotionally involved in it," Boehme said.
Forest Plan Under Fire
The Northwest Forest Plan was supposed to represent a truce in the logging wars of the early 90s, setting aside critical old growth habitat for fish and wildlife while designating other areas for logging. But it's been an uneasy ceasefire with timber industry pushing for more harvest and environmentalists tying up timber sales in court. It's no secret that the Bush administration has been trying for years to increase the total harvest by weakening some of the provisions in the NWFP. While the courts have rebuffed efforts by the administration to roll back watershed protections and wildlife surveys, a recent announcement by the BLM that it planned to triple its timber harvest on Oregon's westside forests has prompted speculation that administration is launching another bid to undo the NWFP. Key to that effort is a re-working of the spotted owl recovery plan that places less emphasis on the importance of old growth forests to the species. That initiative which became public this fall has been blasted by a group of scientists including several that worked on the original NWFP. More than 100 scientists and 23 Congressional Democrats sent letters of protest last month to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's office alleging that dissenting peer reviews of the work had been suppressed.
David Wesley, the deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Oregonian in an Oct. 4 article that government scientists knew they were "pushing it" with the new owl plan. He said the agency plans to reexamine its work and possibly seek additional outside review.
Environmentalists say the message is clear: Federal rank and file employees are under pressure from Washington to ease environmental obstacles to logging on public lands.
"There is a lifetime of restoration forestry to be done in the state of Oregon. Instead we're seeing a bunch of egregious projects to appease the Bush administrations friends in the timber industry and projects like Five Buttes fit that bill," said Cascadia's Laughlin.
Earlier this year his group, along with the Sierra club, successfully challenged the Black Crater sale on the Deschutes National Forest. After winning an initial court judgment the group's reached a settlement that precluded logging on roughly 170 acres of the 190-acre sale west of Sisters. While Black Crater was much smaller than the 5,500-acre Five Butte sale, environmentalists say both projects were driven by the industry's demand for access to more timber rather than good forest management. There are some key differences between the Black Crater and Five Buttes. Black Crater, for example, was a salvage sale to harvest trees that had been killed or damaged by a recent wildfire - a practice that has recently come under scientific scrutiny. Five Buttes, by contrast is designed, at least in theory, to reduce the threat of wildfire by thinning excess vegetation - a practice that when done correctly is embraced by both industry and environmentalists.
It's also worth noting that the case has been assigned to Judge Michael Hogan in Eugene who has a history of rulings friendly to the timber industry. The plaintiffs say privately that they aren't holding out much hope of winning a temporary restraining order against the Forest Service with Hogan - something that they were able to do under a different judge with Black Crater, setting the table for a favorable settlement.
A Nov. 21 hearing is set in Eugene.
The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry consortium based in Portland, has been watching the Five Buttes project and is still weighing whether to intervene on behalf of the Forest Service in the lawsuit, said the organization's president, Tom Partin.
If there is a problem with the Five Buttes project, it's that it doesn't go far enough, he said. In fact, his organization appealed in the agency's initial plans on the basis that they didn't reduce fire risk, or provide enough trees for the timber industry, he said.
The organization is now in the unique position of defending a project that it opposed just a few months ago.
Contradictions aside, Partin said he expects to see more of these types of projects that he says promote forest health, and by extension wildlife habitat for species like the spotted owl, with aggressive thinning. Environmentalists that oppose every project are only helping to promote the kind of overcrowding that leads wildfires and the destruction of habitat, he said.
"We think this is a good project - a project to protect some habitat and provide something to the industry. And I think this the direction we're headed on the national forest and a lot of these groups don't like that," he said.
Environmentalists agree that there is a trend emerging, but not the kind that promotes forest health. Rather, they say the industry is using the threat of fire and buzzwords like "forest health" to push through an outdated agenda.
"It's a damn big bad step backwards," said Tim Lillebo, local representative for the environmental group Oregon Wild who has been involved in local forests issues for several decades.
"We haven't seen this for a few years and we kind of thought the Forest Service was done with that and moved on to fully embracing old growth forests," Lillebo said.