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Comment Period Open for Morgan Nesbit Logging Project Near Joseph

A dog from Rogue Detection Teams searches for evidence of rare wildlife in the project area. Photo: Daniel Howland

The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest is accepting scoping comments on their proposed “Morgan Nesbit Forest Resiliency Project” - a logging project in spectacular forest and canyonlands 20 miles southeast of Joseph, right next to the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

What We Know About the Project

The Forest Service is proposing a project that covers nearly 87,000 acres of public land, including 38,000 acres within the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. This includes 17,586 acres of commercial logging, with just over half of them being in the HCNRA - a place that is, by definition - incredibly special. So special that Congress passed a law to protect it in 1976.

As with many other projects, the primary rationale for Morgan Nesbit is to theoretically reduce the risk of fire by logging our forests to move them towards “desired conditions” - usually meaning less dense forests, with more “resilient” (drought-tolerant) species like ponderosa pine and western larch.

The Forest Service is entrusted with managing these lands thoughtfully and respectfully for both Tribes and the broader public. Each time we encounter a proposed project, we ask ourselves a few questions:

Are they proposing the project in the right place?

While we love all of the nooks and crannies across our mission area, the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and nearby lands have a very special place in our hearts. It’s full of diverse forests, deep canyons, and large swaths of very complex roadless land home to all sorts of wonderful fish, wildlife, and plants. It’s also a place with significant cultural history – the aboriginal territory of the Niimipuu (Nez Perce), who have deep ties to this landscape and treaty-reserved rights to the lands, waters, and resources there.

This image from the Nature Conservancy shows the importance of this very narrow connectivity corridor on a continental scale. In a time of climate change, increasing development, and a biodiversity crisis, these corridors have become even more important. The Morgan Nesbitt Project area is circled in red.

It’s hard to outline why this place is special in just a short blog (honestly, you need to see it for yourself). But, one example that makes a great case is The Nature Conservancy’s “Migrations in Motion” data, where they modeled and mapped the average direction mammals, birds, and amphibians need to move to track hospitable climates as they shift across the landscape.

This research revealed that “only 41 percent of the natural land area in the United States retains enough connectivity to facilitate species tracking their preferred climate conditions as the global climate change”, and if you look at our region (roughly defined as the yellow square above) you’ll see that the likely routes are our public forestlands, with the Morgan Nesbit project is right in the heart of it, circled in red.

With this in mind, we wonder: how is the Forest Service taking this into account? With everything else going on around the forest (other logging projects, motorized use, etc), do they have a real understanding of the true value of areas like Morgan Nesbit? And if not, what needs to be done to make that happen?

The Forest Service would have to make a very compelling case to convince us that 17,586 acres of commercial logging in such a special landscape is the right thing to do, and so far, they have not done that.

Are they proposing this project for the right reasons?

As with everything, there is nuance here. We have some fundamental disagreements with the Forest Service on how much manipulation of forests is worthwhile - economically, socially, and ecologically. Certain safety projects around roads and campgrounds, thinning in the wildland urban interface near homes and communities, and thinning old clearcuts and plantations to restore a more natural forest are all things we can generally support. We don’t believe we can log our way out of over a century of fire suppression, high-grade logging, intense grazing, and other mismanagement.

We continue to take issue with the oversimplification of the landscape from a fire perspective - a perspective that drives nearly all projects now. In reading the notice of proposed action, they mention that “frequent low intensity fires maintained forest health and wildlife habitat by periodically reducing understory accumulation of fuels.” This is true, but only in some places. The agency’s own maps show the high levels of diversity in forest type in such a small space.

A screenshot of the Plant Association Groups layer from the Forest Service’s maps of the project. Cooler colors are associated with cooler forest types, warmer colors are associated with dryer types.

The Blues are not the Deschutes, or the Klamath, or the Fremont-Winema. This is a messy, complicated, and complex forest with enough microclimates to drive folks crazy. But while we feel for the agency, which is understaffed and underfunded, we cannot stop asking them to do better.

Are they proposing to use the right methods and design?

There are certain places where we can agree that logging “treatments” could be useful - especially old clearcuts that were re-planted with dense, homogenous trees, and left as is. As far as commercial logging goes, that’s about as close as you can get to a goldilocks situation - these projects accomplished true restoration while getting logs to the mill. We have supported several projects in the past like this, like Thomas Creek and Glass Creek on the Umatilla National Forest. But the catch was that those projects were much smaller in scope - limited to areas where there was agreement. And while Morgan Nesbit does include some areas like this, they’re only a small piece of the project.

There are lots of other aspects of the project that raise questions for us, such as:

Road building: Right now, the agency is proposing to construct 23.3 new miles of temporary roads. This number doesn’t include the re-opening of other, old roads from previous projects. This is perhaps the most miles of temp roads that we’ve seen proposed, ever. Especially considering that the Wallowa-Whitman is one of the most roaded forests in the nation, and one of only two operating without a Travel Management Plan (which is illegal, by the way!)

Logging in riparian areas: We know that riparian areas are one of the most valuable parts of the landscape - for connectivity, hiding cover, calving and rearing of young, and more. How is the agency planning to “show their work” and prove that thinning in these areas (to avoid fire) is not going to harm the existing value these areas provide to fish and wildlife?

Logging big and old trees (using the amended Eastside Screens): This project is proposing to cut big and old trees, despite the changes to the Eastside Screens currently being challenged in court.

Are they the right people for the job?

Despite a complicated and troubling past, we believe in giving agency staff the benefit of the doubt. We believe the Forest Service is full of good people who want to do good work. However, they are understaffed and underfunded. They are under tremendous pressure and are asked to meet annual (arbitrary) timber targets. Also, history (more recent and longstanding) makes things complicated.

Our desire to trust the agency has to be balanced against the awesome responsibility we have to connect, protect, and restore these landscapes. So, while we are being asked for our trust, we encourage new leadership to take this opportunity to earn that trust back.

So, what can you do?

The Forest Service is currently in the first phase of its environmental review, called “scoping”. You can read the agency’s official documents on the project here, and submit comments here. Comments are due by April 7th. And if you’re interested in checking out the project area this spring or summer, email Jamie here.


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