Keeping the "Wild" in our Lands and Waters
We’re taking strides toward lasting protection of interconnected wildlands and free-flowing waters within the Greater Hells Canyon Region. The Protections program is critical in defending intact natural systems, large and old trees, roadless areas, and watershed health across this spectacular region. Our protections work goes back over 50 years and includes a legacy of successes protecting the Snake River through Hells Canyon, passing wilderness designations and the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area to permanently protect large portions of public lands in the region, scrutinizing and stopping aspects of large timber sales that pose risks to the ecological function of the region's forests, and protecting streams and rivers from degradation caused by logging, road building, and livestock grazing.
A diverse mix of forests make up a significant part of the public lands in the Greater Hells Canyon Region. Our work primarily focuses on the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla National Forests, where we work to ensure timber sales and other management actions comply with federal laws including the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). These bedrock laws are meant to ensure logging projects don't detrimentally impact the long term ecological function of an area and that threatened and endangered species habitat remains protected. In the Greater Hells Canyon Region, and across the West, these laws are often circumvented, or attempts are made to water them down. We work to make sure federal agencies comply with these laws, and we work with our elected officials to keep these laws intact.
After a century of unsustainable logging, large trees make up only 3% of the forests in the Greater Hells Canyon Region but store over 42% of the forest’s carbon. Ancient forests and big trees are naturally resilient to wildfire and provide key habitat for wildlife, including martens, fishers, owls, woodpeckers, and many others.
Ecological connectivity in the Greater Hells Canyon Region requires a mix of collaboration on actively managed landscapes and lasting protections on lands that contain mature forests and functioning, intact ecosystems. Water is the lifeblood of the Blue Mountains Ecoregion, and protecting watershed health is paramount for anadromous fish. Large trees are critical for cooling water for spawning fish and young smolts. In the larger river basins, salmon and steelhead require safe passages, but must navigate dams and the warm, still water trapped behind them.
A major category of our protections work involves planning on the national forests in the Greater Hells Canyon Region. Planning refers to decisions that govern how management will occur across a national forest or other landscapes by informing how the U.S. Forest Service and other public agencies implement specific on-the-ground actions and activities. Certain planning processes, like the revision to the Blue Mountains Forest Plan (which is currently on hold), Travel Management (also on hold) and the changes to the 21” rule limiting the logging of large trees across Eastern Oregon and Southwest Washington have significant impact on the long-term health of the region's forested landscapes.
In its final days, the Trump administration unlawfully signed a “final decision” for the 21” rule revision process — taking the contentious effort to eliminate the 21" rule out of the Forest Service’s hands and bypassing any further public engagement.
The 21” rule, also referred to as the Eastside Screens, has protected old and large trees across the eastern Cascades, Ochocos, Strawberries, Blues, and Wallowas for nearly 30 years. By eliminating the rule, there are no longer strong protections for old and large trees across over 9 million acres of federal forests in eastern Oregon and Washington. Instead of restricting logging on old and large trees, the Forest Service must only consider them when planning future projects.
The most direct path to restoring protections for large trees in Oregon's Eastside forests is for the Biden Administration to restore the 21" rule or reopen the revision process. If you haven’t already, please ask Oregon’s Senators to work with the Biden administration to keep protections for large trees and old-growth forests. To better understand the issues impacting the protection of large trees in Northeast Oregon's forests, read GHCC Conservation Direction Veronica Warnock's article The Ecological Approach to Addressing Climate Change and Resiliency in Northeast Oregon’s Forests on our blog, and visit https://bigtrees.greenoregon.org/.
Direct on-the-ground actions, be it a timber sale, grazing reauthorization, or a mining permit, must comply with direction set forth in land management plans and bedrock environmental laws such as NEPA and the Endangered Species Act. At times, public agencies try to circumvent their duties under these policies and laws. We review all planned actions across the Greater Hells Canyon Region to ensure they are in compliance with these laws, as well as providing additional comments and guidance where we have concerns that a planned action will be detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Our effort to protect the Lostine River Canyon is an example of this work.
Lostine River Canyon
The Lostine River canyon is located in the Wallowa Mountains in Northeastern Oregon. It is surrounded by the spectacular Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon’s largest protected wilderness. The headwaters of the crystal clear Lostine River originate at Minam Lake. There is a narrow “cherry stem” road that punches 11 miles into the wilderness. The road provides access to trailheads, campsites, and a handful of private inholdings.
The Lostine Corridor logging project is located in this cherry stem. The logging project is adjacent to pristine wilderness on one side and the Wild and Scenic Lostine River on the other. This project has been billed as a public safety project; however, less than 10% of the proposed logging addresses safety issues. Improving public safety in the Lostine Corridor can be achieved without industrial logging and roadbuilding. Achieving that laudable goal does not have to come at the expense of some of the region’s most pristine remaining unprotected forests, rare plants and animals, cultural sites, and other sensitive resources.
GHCC, alongside other conservation organizations, sued the Forest Service's use of Categorical Exclusion to avoid following the rules set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when developing the project. While we were unsuccessful stopping the effort to log the Lostine, our effort reduced the acreage planned for commercial thinning. We continue to advocate to limit the categorical exclusions (CEs) used to cut the public out of decisions about their own public lands, and we will continue to monitor the work on the Lostine. For more of our work on the Lostine, read this F.A.Q. and an update after the decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Lostine also provides critical habitat for salmon and steelhead that must navigate the mainstem Columbia River dams and the four dams on the lower Snake River before reaching the river. This video by Pacific Rivers helps highlight some of the many reasons we fought to protect the Lostine River.
Throughout our history, starting with our work to stop the effort to dam the Snake River through Hells Canyon and create the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, we've worked to secure lasting protections for the lands, waters, and wildlife in the Greater Hells Canyon Region.
River Democracy Act
In early 2021, Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced the River Democracy Act, legislation that would result in adding Wild and Scenic River designation to 4,700 river miles across the state, including many creeks, streams and rivers in Northeast Oregon. If passed, this legislation would mean Oregon has more protected Wild and Scenic River miles than anywhere else in the United States.
The process to identify rivers to include in the Act was the result of a grassroots effort spearheaded by Senator Wyden that solicited nominations from citizens across Oregon. And if you'd like to thank Senators Wyden and Merkley for their leadership, send them a letter today.