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The Ecological Approach to Addressing Climate Change and Resiliency in Northeast Oregon’s Forests

When the Biden Administration committed to cutting US emissions in half by 2030, the announcement, while light on details, gave us hope that an ecological approach to managing Northeast Oregon’s forests was closer to being realized. In order to reach this ambitious goal, the Administration promises to protect forests from logging so they can draw down carbon. The Administration has also promised to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and inland waters and 30 percent of our nation’s ocean by 2030 in order to address the dual challenges of climate change and the mass extinction crisis.

Yet, even with the long overdue recognition of forest lands’ importance in addressing climate change, when it comes to on-the-ground forest management, the narrative that large scale logging of national forests, including harvesting large trees, helps forest resilience and carbon storage still holds sway. Even more surprisingly, the Trump Administration’s midnight decision to allow logging trees over 21” in diameter in our region, a rule the Biden Administration can easily reverse, is low hanging fruit that isn’t getting picked. Not reversing this decision runs counter to the very goals Biden’s team is espousing. So why?

You’ve probably heard the popular expression that has been attributed to Albert Einstein: doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Even so, in the United States, the forest management solution heard most often to solve new and existing ecological challenges is always the same. Logging.

There is a lot of misinformation out there. Albert Einstein claimed he never said those words. Just as false as attributing the quote to Einstein is the idea that we can log our way out of the climate and biodiversity crises. But before we explore the misinformation myths impacting the future of our region’s forests, it’s important to understand the current ecology and management paradigm at play in Eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington’s forests.

Protecting Wildlife with the Eastside Screens

Large tree protection was implemented as part of the Eastside Screens in 1994 in order to preserve the few remaining large and old trees and the wildlife values they provide. Today, due to a century of high-grade logging that removed the largest and oldest trees across all forest types, our forests contain only a small fraction of the large and mature trees that they had historically.

The screens amended all forest plans for national forests east of the Cascade Crest in Oregon and Washington. Among other things, they included a rule that prohibited logging of “live trees” greater than 20-inches in diameter at breast height. Basically, green trees 21” or larger could no longer be logged. This has become known as the “21” rule.” While the screens contained a lot of other provisions, the 21” rule was important because it was the strongest ecological protection the screens contained. But, since its inception, industry and proponents of logging have fought the rule and refused to recognize the critical importance of the ecological function of big trees, valuing instead the timber volume these trees provide to their balance sheets once they’ve been harvested. Their efforts resulted in multiple failed legal, legislative, and planning attempts to overturn it.

That was up until the Trump Administration’s attempt to roll back nearly all environmental protections for public lands. In the final days of the Trump administration, James Hubbard, a Trump appointee, signed a decision that got rid of protections for large trees on more than eight million acres across six national forests in Eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington.

Despite the large body of science that supports continued protections of our last remaining large and mature trees, the recent decision to get rid of large tree protections in the greater Blue Mountains Region was no surprise. The justification for doing so came right out of the “no matter the problem, logging is the solution” playbook.

Now, instead of the 21” rule, we have guidance that recommends protecting old trees (over 150 years old). A tree’s age will be determined visually by yet to be developed criteria. If there are no old trees to protect, the guideline recommends protecting large trees. The new management direction changed the definition of large trees to greater than 30 inches for grand fir with no explanation as to why. The decision also “clarified” that it should be applied only outside of old growth forests leaving no guidance for logging or protecting old and large trees within old growth stands. This last point is important! For almost 30 years, the Forest Service has applied the 21” standard to all forest types including old growth forests. It is now unclear how our most mature forests will be managed and if the new recommendations apply to them.

Viewed more broadly, the decision to amend the Eastside Screens and do away with the 21” rule was made without real consideration of the ecological impacts. It was rushed through using a flawed and inadequate public process that had only one opportunity for public comment. The decision didn’t adequately analyze how these changes would impact wildlife viability, the very basis for the rule in the first place, or aquatic habitat, carbon storage, water quality and availability. Nor did it acknowledge that different ecological conditions might necessitate different management approaches. Because of this, the plan amendment itself violates many governing laws and regulations, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. This was all done despite the overwhelming opposition from conservation organizations, 100’s of independent scientists, and former Forest Service leadership, amongst many others, including hundreds of members of the public.

If the Forest Service had taken into consideration the vital role mature forests and large trees play in our ecosystem, we might still have protections for them across Eastern Oregon and Southeastern Washington. Instead, we have new management direction that, if implemented, will likely result in irreversible losses of the remaining old and large trees, increased carbon emissions, and potentially devastating impacts to wildlife and water quality. And it’s especially concerning that with large tree logging back on the table, timber sales in the remote backcountry—home to the last remaining intact forests—have also become more profitable for the timber industry.

Forest Management Myths

The timber industry and logging proponents have used a series of myths and the fear of wildfire to justify the continuation of destructive forest management practices. They even try to put a positive ecological spin on cutting large trees, regardless of the current science and the climate crisis. Unfortunately for our region’s forests, the mythology and fear mongering are proving to be highly effective.

One popular fallacy is the idea that wildfires are a large contributor to carbon emissions and that we can reduce wildfires if we aggressively log our forests. Both of those ideas have been proven wrong. Wildfires account for a small amount of annual carbon emissions, significantly smaller than the emissions from cutting down forests. And trying to influence fire behavior with logging is mostly futile. When fire weather is not extreme, logging small diameter trees followed by prescribed burning in some forest types can influence fire behavior under some circumstances for a limited amount of time. Large fires in the west are driven by extreme weather and changing weather patterns from climate change. Under these conditions, logging of any type has a limited influence on fire behavior. Even the US Forest Service’s own scientists have noted that logging can actually increase fire severity.

Another popular idea that is used to justify logging is the notion that we need to prepare our forests for a dryer future by thinning them. If not, the forests will die. This is akin to a self fulfilling prophecy. Logging dries out our forests and warms the planet by reducing shade and emitting carbon. Mature forests actually buffer against rising temperatures by creating microclimates that shelter understory species from rising temperatures. (How cool, right?)

In my role as Conservation Director for GHCC, I can’t tell you the number of times forest management agencies have told me that if they don’t log places like the Lostine—a mature moist forest along a river that also happens to have an 11 mile access road carved out of the surrounding Eagle Cap Wilderness—people recreating in the area will burn up and die, and so will the forest. This irrational fear mongering has taken over the public discourse, and it serves those who aim to benefit from the timber harvests at the expense of the forest as a functional ecosystem. It has dominated the discussion to such an extent that we rarely talk about the critical role our intact forests, especially our old and mature carbon rich forests, play in reducing extreme fire behavior, increasing drought tolerance, reducing flooding from intense rain events, redistributing soil water, ensuring consistent and clean water supply, and providing habitat for fish, wildlife and plants. We certainly don’t talk about management in a way that reflects the nuances of forest ecology.

Another oversimplification that consistently fuels misinformation is the tendency of the Forest Service to manage dry and moist forests as if they are the same. They aren’t the same, and they respond to management differently. Logging in some dry forests can reduce fire severity if thinning is aimed at removing small diameter trees. Nevertheless, if slash-piles and other materials are left on site rather than taken out of the forest for disposal, these operations too can elevate the risk and severity of unplanned ignitions. Logging moist forests dries them out and makes them more susceptible to extreme fires.

We have even seen industry-backed studies suggesting that logging large trees helps forests store more carbon. It’s exasperating having to combat misinformation being produced at the behest of the timber industry, which relies on these myths to confuse our ability to make sense of the most ecological and climate-smart approach to forest management. Unsurprisingly, 100-plus years as an influential and profitable timber industry allows it to wield its myriad connections in politics, research institutions and the media to leverage this misinformation to its benefit.

So what comes next?

The biodiversity and climate crises are not something that “could” happen. They are happening right now under our watch, and the opportunities to stabilize the climate and slow down mass species extinction are quickly closing.

While the science behind the solutions to these crises is relatively simple and well documented, implementing the solutions will require strong leadership, accepting hard-to-stomach truths, and an all-hands-on-deck approach. Federally-managed lands are the simplest and most effective place to start when focusing on the role of forested lands, and as such, they will play a key role in reversing the trend toward mass species extinctions and climate instability.

Rather than continue the insanity approach, fueled by the timber industry’s narrative, we need to prioritize investments in forest management and home-hardening that protects the homes and communities most at risk from increasing climate-driven wildfire, while leaving our backcountry forests to do what they do best: store carbon and provide much needed wildlife habitat. And we also must invest in active forest restoration on lands that have been hammered by years of poor forest management to connect our intact forests so they are not isolated islands.

GHCC is working with a coalition of conservation groups from around the region to compel the Biden Administration to withdraw the absurd 21” rule amendment that directly counters the Administration’s own climate plans. Prior to a final decision being made by a Trump appointee just two business days before President Biden was inaugurated, we asked the Biden Transition Team to halt the amendment. We asked that the amendment be reviewed under the Administration's Climate Executive Order which directs agencies to review agency actions, like the Eastside Screens amendment, for consistency with the Administration's priorities of listening to science, protecting the environment and addressing climate change. If such actions are deemed inconsistent, the Executive Order directs agencies to rescind the agency action. A national coalition also included the request in its list of decisions it wants the Biden Administration to review. Leaving no stone unturned, we also asked our Oregon Senators to work with the administration to rescind the decision.

Yet so far we have been largely ignored.

Not only did the Eastside Screens amendment ignore the best available science, it will decrease the region’s potential for carbon storage and resilience to climate change and, as such, is clearly an action that should be reviewed under the Executive Order. Further, reinstating protections for large and old trees also fits squarely into the Administration's commitment to cut emissions and protect 30% of our lands and waters by 2030.

Will the Biden Administration make good on its many commitments to protect large trees and public lands from logging? Maybe. But in order to do so, they will have to cut through all of the misinformation and industry-driven pressure out there to ignore the best available science and keep logging intact forests and large trees. That’s where you come in.

Take Action for Large Trees

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. Our elected leaders need to hear that addressing climate change and the extinction crisis is important to the American people and that forest protection is an essential part of the solution.

If you want to dig deeper into the issues, check out the links in this blog. Or grab a cup of something, get comfy, and watch a recording of Dr. David Mildrexler speaking about his research regarding large trees in Eastern Oregon and the opportunity they present for mitigating climate change. And consider taking in a panel presentation discussing large tree management, the importance of Eastside forests in statewide efforts to protect wildlife, biodiversity, connectivity, and carbon, and the unique challenges in advocating for Eastside forests (the latter features yours truly). The more we understand the ecological importance of our western forests and the role they would play in addressing the climate and biodiversity crises, the more we’ll be able to sniff out the misinformation that seeks to obfuscate science and keep us on the wrong path.

Join us, along with the many organizations we’re working with to get this amendment revoked. Our partners in this effort include Oregon Wild, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, Central Oregon LandWatch, Crag Law Center, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians and the Juniper Chapter of the Sierra Club. All of these groups have been instrumental in this work.


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