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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Tree Sitters Face Off With Professors Over Logging Plan

EarthFix Photo/Amelia Templeton

Last year, the US Bureau of Land Management sold the rights to log a small grove of Douglas firs in Oregon, to a private company called Roseburg Forest Products.

The company bid more than $1 million for the trees and planned to start logging this fall.

Then the tree sitters showed up.

Cascadia Forest Defenders stationed themselves 100 feet above ground on wooden platforms and rope lines. They argue the logging is a clear cut of native forest.

But these tree sitters aren’t fighting Roseburg as much as they are two forestry professors who are studying how to manage Northwest forests. The professors, Norm Johnson at Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin at the University of Washington, have a long track record in conservation.

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The professors are using this spread of land to test a pilot plan that could be used to manage Oregon’s O&C Lands — a checkerboard of parcels in Western Oregon named for the Oregon & California Railroad that once owned them.

Related at EarthFix: Wyden’s O&C Forest Bill Attempts To Balance Logging And Conservation

The site in question, known as the White Castle timber sale, lies about 19 miles east of Myrtle Creek, Ore., at the end of a narrow gravel road curving up a forested ridgeline and covered with ice, boulders and fallen trees. The forest here started growing 120 years ago after a fire burned through this area, west of Crater Lake. It’s native forest, never been cut before, but it’s not “old growth” forest.

Kate Armstrong, a 21-year-old University of Oregon student and part of the protest, said they see the pilot project as a clear-cut under the guise of science.

“It’s a shame that they would call themselves scientists and call themselves conservationists or environmentalists who care about the forest, but who would put their names on such a bogus project that is so obviously to me just playing into what the logging industry wants to have happen,” Armstrong said of the professors.

Johnson, who said he knew White Castle would be controversial the minute he set foot there, has visited the protesters.

“I could see how disappointed they were in me,” Johnson said. “Yeah, that’s hard.”

Johnson said this timber sale isn’t your grandfather’s clear-cut. The pilot project is a demonstration of something called a “variable retention harvest.”

“The approach we’re taking is trying as best we can to emulate the development of a wild forest,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace it with a tree farm.”

The Cascadia Forest Defenders are not alone in criticizing the idea.

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“Jobs, logs and early seral forest can all be attained without wrecking more mature forests,” Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild wrote in comments submitted to the US Bureau of Land Management. “There is 20+ years of young stand thinning to do and significant new reasons NOT to conduct (regeneration) harvest in mature forests.”

Trees older than 80 years contain clearer wood of a higher value, though, said Scott Folk, Vice President of Resources at Roseburg Forest Products, which can be used in a wider variety of higher grade products.

Not ‘Your Grandfather’s Clear-Cut’

Several years ago, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asked Johnson and Franklin to help develop timber harvests that would be profitable while serving an environmental purpose. The professors drew inspiration from research, published after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, on the importance of so-called early seral habitat that develops after natural disasters like eruptions, windstorms and large wildfires.

Related at EarthFix: Does Mount St. Helens Have Lessons for an Oregon Logging Experiment?

In the variable retention harvest Johnson and Franklin developed, the largest, oldest trees on a site don’t get cut down. About a third of the standing and fallen wood is left untouched, while the rest gets logged. The site is allowed to recover naturally, with foresters replanting a minimal amount of species like fir, cedar, and hemlock. After a few years, a meadow of grasses and bushes and berries will start to grow in place of the forest.

“There are many creatures that like to live in openings. Say mountain bluebirds, or salamanders,” Johnson said.

This moment just after the destruction of a forest, when young trees compete with bushes and grasses for sun is called an early seral ecosystem. It can last for 30 years or more, until the conifers grow tall enough to block the light. Studies show that up to 35 percent of the landscape in the western Cascades used to be early seral habitat, but that’s now fallen to as little as 2 percent.

“The diverse early seral stage is actually rarer than old growth right now,” Johnson said. “We are very short of it.”

Politicians like Johnson and Franklin’s idea. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a bill that would use Johnson’s technique to increase the amount of timber cut on public lands in western Oregon.

“We worked with the best scientists in the Northwest to make these harvests as ecologically friendly as we possibly could,” Wyden said in a recent press conference.

100 Feet Above

Back in the trees, Josh Eng, a 29-year-old with a pointy, black beard who has spent much of the past nine weeks living on one of the tiny platforms.

Eng, taking his turn stationed in the tree, answers to the nickname Turtle when fellow protesters shout up to him from the ground camp. That camp includes a tent, a kerosene lamp, and a milk crate full of science fiction novels from the Eugene Public library.

To reach Eng and the heart of the group’s tree camp requires buckling into a climbing harness to inch up 100 feet of rope.

The wooden platform at the top is just big enough to sleep on. Buckets of food and water hang from the branches nearby. It rocks gently like a boat as the top of the fir tree sways in the wind. Eng stays clipped in, even while he sleeps.

This high up, Eng figures he’ll be very difficult to arrest. So far, he says, nobody’s tried to remove him from the tree.

The Bureau of Land Management says moving forward with the logging pilot project is critical. And it is in the process of closing road access to the ridgeline to try to force the tree sitters to move on.

“We want to be respectful of the protesters, and respectful of their right to protest the sale,” said Steve Lydic, field manager with the BLM in Roseburg. “But there comes a time when the timber sale purchaser also has the right to harvest wood they have purchased.”