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Why We Sued the Forest Service Over the Eastside Screens

Today GHCC, along with Oregon Wild, Central Oregon LandWatch, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians, and the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit challenging a Trump-era rule change that allows logging of mature and old growth forests on over 7 million acres of national forests across Eastern Oregon and Washington.

We filed the suit over the Forest Service’s decision to eliminate a provision of the Eastside Screens that prohibited the logging of trees larger than 21” in diameter. The complaint alleges that the decision violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and National Forest Management Act (NFMA). Our group also notified the agency of our intent to enforce Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for fish and wildlife that depend on older forests.

We did not want to engage in litigation. Litigation is disruptive, it is expensive, and it forces us to turn to courts and judges to determine how best to apply bedrock environmental laws. But sometimes it is necessary when we know the public agencies tasked with managing our environment are on the wrong side of the law, and especially when not doing so codifies negative impacts to forest ecosystems and all of us, human and non-human, who rely on them.

The Screens amendment replaced an enforceable standard protecting large trees with a loosely worded guideline. Following the amendment, large tree logging is already being proposed in multiple timber sales on multiple forests. That indicates the amendment will be used to allow logging of large and mature tree stands on thousands of acres of National Forest land across Eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington.

In addition, by replacing an enforceable standard with a guideline, it opens the door to more conflict and confusion related to the Forest Service’s adherence to the Endangered Species Act on proposed logging projects. In the absence of enforceable standards, the decision to log trees over 21” in diameter is up to the discretion of the Forest Service staff implementing a project, and we have already begun to see how that is playing out in destructive and controversial ways.

For more information on the history and impact of the Eastside Screens, visit our Protections webpage.

For more on why it matters, read The Ecological Approach to Addressing Climate Change and Resiliency in Northeast Oregon’s Forests, by GHCC's former Conservation Director, Veronica Warnock.

The remainder of this blog post is less about the rule and its background — we've shared much on this since the U.S. Forest Service revoked it at the end of the Trump Administration. Rather, we'd like to explain why we are where we are today and invite you to join us in our request to the Biden Administration to restore the protections provided by the Eastside Screens and to not defend the U.S. Forest Service in court.

Why are we now filing a lawsuit?

It has been well over a year since the Biden Administration took office, so why has it taken us so long to file this lawsuit? Greater Hells Canyon Council and our partner organizations made many efforts to work with the Forest Service, the Trump and Biden administrations, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and other decision makers to chart a different path forward. Our goal was for the Biden Administration to recognize the importance of restoring the Eastside Screens to achieving its ambitious climate goals (which we applaud!).

Since the decision to weaken the Screens was put into place, however, the Forest Service has been under tremendous pressure by the timber industry to put them to use. Now that the agency has begun developing and approving controversial projects that log our largest and most fire-resistant trees and sensitive forests, the harms are no longer abstract.

Could this have been solved without going to court?

For over a year, numerous groups have reached out to the Biden Administration to use an Executive Order to review the decision (even the Washington Post included this as a Trump Administration rollback the administration could do something about), and sought other avenues to resolve the conflict.

With projects being developed and rolled out under the new rules, we were out of options. The Biden Administration has begun to recognize the importance of mature and old growth forests in the fight against the climate and biodiversity crises. We have called on Senators Wyden and Merkley to honor their - and the President’s - promises by restoring protections and starting over in good faith using a democratic process that honors the best available science and recognizes the issues we are bringing forth if we allow our largest and most carbon-rich trees in Eastern Oregon to be logged.

How does the new Biden Executive Order on old-growth relate to this litigation?

On Earth Day, the Biden Administration issued an Executive Order to the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to inventory America's few remaining mature and old-growth forests. Scientists and conservationists across the country applauded the action as a welcome first step towards protecting our forests.

However, in too many places, our largest and oldest trees, and most intact forests, are still being cut down. Their carbon is going back into the atmosphere, and the other important values they provide are disappearing with it. The Executive Order does not address these projects or provide immediate protections.

Rather than defend the Trump administration’s destructive decision, the President should direct the Forest Service to stand down and restore protections for big, old trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington that have been in place for decades.

What do we hope to achieve?

Once the Trump rule is revoked, conservationists and others stand ready to work in good faith with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to create the long-promised rules to ensure healthy functioning landscapes and vibrant human communities.

To the extent that our national forests belong to anyone, they belong to all of us, equally. The process to create those rules must be fair, inclusive, equitable, and science based. They must also meaningfully consider Indigenous perspectives and honor Treaty rights.

What’s Next for those involved in the lawsuit?

The Forest Service has a number of options to choose from. They should take corrective action and address their violations of the law and work with plaintiffs on a solution. They should revoke the rule-change and restore the Screens.

On the other hand, they could choose to defend the Trump Administration’s illegal decision to remove protections for mature and old-growth forests and trees.

The agency can find a solution that doesn’t require a lengthy legal battle. We hope Senators Wyden and Merkley will urge the Biden Administration to withdraw the decision, restore protections for the large and old trees of Eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington, and work in good faith with all stakeholders to craft a solution, as promised over two decades ago.

Given the number of organizations and individuals who opposed this rule change, it is also quite possible that other legal challenges are forthcoming.

how you can support this effort

We encourage you to reach out to the Biden Administration and Oregon's Senators letting them know you support this effort to restore protections for large trees across Eastern Oregon. To help, we have provided draft text you can edit or send as is. With less than five minutes of your time, you can add your voice to our effort.

Thank you for supporting Oregon's forests and joining our work to connect, protect, and restore the Greater Hells Canyon Region.


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