‘Breaking News’: Another News Outlet Gets It Wrong on the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

By Travis Joseph, AFRC President

In its December 7 editorial titled “Oregon should fight for an untouched Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument,” the editorial board makes several false and misleading claims that deserve clarification.

First, the editorial board wrote that the “federal government is planning to reduce some of the space available” to the public by reducing the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. That’s simply not true. No matter what happens to the monument, the federal land will stay in federal ownership and public access will remain.

In fact, limiting public access was one of the reasons so many Oregonians opposed the monument expansion in the first place. The expansion would lead to permanent road closures and road decommissioning making it more difficult for Oregonians – especially those with disabilities that depend on the infrastructure – to access some of their favorite places. The monument also restricts traditional uses of the land, such as grazing and timber, that have helped sustain the local economy for decades. If the monument stands, public access to public lands will decrease, not increase.

The editorial board also claims it has seen “no support from folks who use the land for recreation” to make changes to the monument size. Really? The counties that host the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and the elected state legislators that represent Oregonians who live, work, and play in or near the monument strongly and publicly voiced their opposition to the expansion. But, apparently, the voices of the people most impacted by the monument don’t count – or were never heard.

Then, bizarrely, the editorial board argues that even though “the state has plenty of other open space” the monument is important because “once land is lost to development, it’s unlikely it will ever revert to the people again.” No one, on either side of the debate, is proposing that the land in question be developed. Although, it should be pointed out that several supporters of the monument expansion own cabins within the monument boundaries. State taxpayers will be on the hook to protect these structures if and when a wildfire occurs in this fire prone landscape.

What the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument expansion is really all about is whether or not a president – regardless of party – has the authority to override an act of Congress. In 1937, Congress passed a law that requires the Bureau of Land Management to manage all O&C lands for “permanent forest production.” The law has never been repealed, replaced, amended, or changed. The O&C Act is the law of the land.

But, with a swoop of a pen, the Obama Administration circumvented that law and re-designated the same lands for a completely different purpose. To add insult to injury, the monument expansion happened largely behind closed doors with minimal public input. The expansion was exempt from all public review and environmental laws – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act just to name a few.

It’s disappointing that on such an important issue to the state of Oregon, which will have major legal implications for public land management into the future, the editorial board got the basic facts so wrong. Let’s have a conversation about the appropriate size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the appropriate role of the Antiquities Act, and how the O&C Act is being implemented. But, if we are going to have an honest conversation, let’s start with the facts.


Environmental Analysis too long to print

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Last summer I wrote an article for AFRC’s blog regarding the status of Environmental Analyses (EA’s) being completed on the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when conducting vegetation management projects, including timber harvest, on their lands.  At the time, I highlighted a 418-page EA and described it as a “mammoth” document.  That description seemed fitting considering that the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) described in its 2007 publication A Citizens Guide to NEPA that The environmental assessment (EA) is intended to be a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis.  418 pages seemed excessive and a far cry from “concise” and at the time was the longest EA published by the BLM for a vegetation management project that I had reviewed.  Of course, there is no limit to excess, a rule that I was reminded of this month following the BLM’s publication of a 460-page EA titled “Pickett West”.  Now I’m faced with finding an adjective more extreme than mammoth.  I briefly flirted with the idea of labeling the Pickett West document as “mammoth”, but after placing a phone call into the Medford BLM office I was provided with a more apt description.

Typically, the BLM will provide printed hard-copies of any NEPA document they publish.  Knowing this, I called the Grants Pass Field Office to request a hard-copy of the 460-page Pickett West EA.  The response I received was at first funny and bit surreal, but later simply depressing.  The BLM informed me that they would not be providing the public with hard-copies of the Pickett West EA because it is “too long to print”.  That’s correct, the BLM has officially prepared an EA that is either too costly or too time consuming for them to print on paper.  That’s when I halted my search for a single adjective worthy to represent the Pickett West EA.  If 2016 was the year of mammoth EA’s then 2017 is officially the year of “EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print”.

I can’t say that I’m shocked by where we’re at.  The digression of the BLM into the world of EA’s-Too-Long-To-Print was bound to happen.  This is an agency that constantly hears accusations that their EA’s are “insufficient” in scope and in content by opponents of timber management, regardless of how long they are (If you don’t believe me, call the Medford BLM office and request copies of the 170-pages of formal protests they received last year for all their hard work publishing over 1,500 pages of environmental analysis).  So, if a 300-page EA is insufficient, and a 418-page EA is insufficient, then I’m guessing that a 460-page EA will also be seen as insufficient.  The only relevant question now is what will 2018 bring?  The optimist in me likes to think that it will be the year that the Medford BLM District ignores the absurd claims that their Russian-novelesque EA’s are insufficient, and publishes an EA that is a concise document that briefly provides sufficient evidence and analysis (where have I heard that description before…).  But the pessimist in me suspects that I’ll be searching for a new word to describe whatever type of document gets published by the BLM next June.


BLM Timber Sale Generates Impressive Value

by Andy Geissler, AFRC Field Forester

Over the past twenty years the Bureau of Land Management has met its timber output targets primarily through the thinning of young stands.  This one-dimensional management paradigm has been criticized by several stakeholders for various reasons.  Professional foresters have questioned the validity of a “thinning-only” regime given the fact that such a practice is unsustainable.  Sustainable forestry can only occur in this region through the harvest of mature timber followed by replanting of a new stand.

The forest products industry has questioned this regime as young stand thinnings only supply a single type of raw material that can only be processed into a narrow range of final products.  County governments, who receive 50% of the value generated by timber sales on O&C Lands, have questioned the limitations in value of a thinning-only management paradigm as the value of these offerings is lower than those from mature stands.  However, in recent months the BLM across all Western Oregon has started to progress beyond the status-quo of the past twenty years by offering timber sales that regenerate appropriate stands of timber.  This progression addresses all three of these concerns as regeneration harvest of mature stands provides sustainability, a variety of forest products, and a monetary value that is significant enough to provide stable county budgets.

The latest such timber sale, called Fawn Two, was sold by the Salem Sustained Yield Unit (SYU) of the Northwest Oregon District north of Mill City for over $2 million.  The stands in Fawn Two are at a seral stage where thinning is no longer effective and regeneration harvest is the only remaining management option.  The sale consisted primarily of Douglas-fir, and sold at a rate of $615 per thousand board feet (MBF).  To put this in proper context, the other five sales that the Salem SYU offered this fiscal year were sold at an average rate of $282/MBF for Douglas-fir (the highest rate was $347/MBF).  This means the Fawn Two timber sale exceeded the average value per board foot of Douglas-fir of all the other Salem SYU timber sales this year by nearly 120%!  As mentioned earlier, the total value of the Fawn Two timber sale was approximately $2 Million.  To put that number in context, the average value of the previously cited five timber sales was $1.2 Million.  The distinction between those two numbers may not seem significant; but consider that the average size of those five timber sales was 228 acres and that Fawn Two was a mere 60 acres!  The Counties will receive $16,666 an acre from the Fawn Two sale and only $2,632 an acre from the other sales.

If nothing else, the results of the Fawn Two timber sale should silence the critics who claim that the BLM’s timber outputs cannot provide the monetary value necessary to keep County beneficiaries whole.


When a Take is Not a Take: The Regulatory Quagmire of the ESA No-Take Provision

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) states that it is unlawful to “take” any endangered species of fish or wildlife.  50 CFR Part 17.31 expands the prohibition to take endangered species to wildlife species listed as threatened. The term “take” means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. Harm is further defined in 50 CFR §17.3 to include significant habitat modification or degradation that results in death or injury to listed species by significantly impairing behavioral patterns such as breeding, feeding, or sheltering. Harass is defined as actions that create the likelihood of injury to listed species to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding or sheltering. All of the “takings” alleged to have occurred due to habitat modification caused by timber sales on federal land are in the form of harassment. The Secretary is also authorized by the ESA to permit any taking if such taking is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity.

Incidental Take Guidelines for the Northern Spotted Owl

The USFWS issued “Procedures Leading to Endangered Species Act Compliance for the Northern Spotted Owl” in July of 1990.  This document defined how take would be determined when associated with “degradation or the destruction of suitable spotted owl habitat”.  These guidelines were established based on limited research done in the 1980’s that showed a tenuous relationship between the amount of suitable habitat and spotted owl occupancy and reproductive success.  Based on this limited research, the USFWS determined that there is a high likelihood of take if the amount of suitable habitat within the home range falls below 40%.  The actual research this was based on showed that stands over 21% suitable habitat functioned as well as those with greater amounts of habitat. (Bart, J and E.D. Forsman 1992)  The USFWS formally rescinded the take guidelines in October 1991 but has continued to use the 40% standard as ‘the best scientific information”.

As a result of a ruling in a case called ONRC vs. Allen. The USFWS, USFS and BLM developed the Owl Estimation Methodology (OEM) which updated the habitat conditions that would determine the likelihood of take.  They retained the 40% of the home range determination and modified the threshold conditions within the nest site and core areas.  The OEM also defined that a take would occur if any suitable habitat is removed within a 300 foot radius circle around the nest tree or the amount of suitable habitat falls below 50% of the core area which range in size from 5,720 acres in northern Washington to 500 acres in Oregon and California.  The OEM was formally withdrawn in 2015 after Judge Leon ruled its use by the federal agencies was illegal but the USFWS still utilizes the three habitat criteria to determine if owls will be “taken” due to changes in suitable habitat conditions.

Take Determination on USFS and BLM Timber Sales

When a timber sale is being planned, the action agency (USFS or BLM) must determine how it will affect the spotted owl.  There are three affect determinations.  The first is that the project will have no effect in which case the action agency does not have to notify the USFWS about the project.  The second is a “may affect but not likely to adversely affect” the spotted owl.  In this case, the action agency must obtain a “letter of concurrence” from the USFWS.  The third determination is one that “may affect and is likely to adversely affect” the spotted owl.  Currently, the USFS and BLM have been directed by the USFWS to treat projects that remove or downgrade any suitable spotted owl habitat regardless of the presence of any spotted owls as being “likely to adversely affect” spotted owls.  In this case, the action agency submits a Biological Assessment to the USFWS who then prepare a Biological Opinion that must conclude that the proposed actions will not “jeopardized the existence of the specie” or “adversely modify critical habitat”.  If either of these occur as a result of the project, the project will not go forward.

If the project receives a no jeopardy and no adverse modification determination, the USFWS then determines if any take will occur as a result of the project.  If so, they will prepare an incidental take statement which allows the agency to proceed with the project since the take “is incidental to, and not the purpose of, the carrying out of an otherwise lawful activity”.  In determining take, the USFWS uses the take guidelines found in the Owl Estimation Methodology.  The amount of take that is assumed to occur if habitat is below one of the three thresholds is 2 adults and 1.5 young per home range.

How the Thresholds are used in Determining Take on Timber Sales

Using hard line thresholds for take determination leads to a number of very bizarre situations.  The first of these occur in southern and eastern Oregon and northern California.  In these provinces, over 90% of the historic home ranges do not contain 40% suitable habitat in their natural state.  This is due to climate and soil productivity factors that limit stand density.  It also frequently occurs on land managed by the BLM because of their checkerboard ownership created by the O&C Act.  Since the home ranges in these areas are below threshold levels naturally, removing any “suitable habitat” will result in a take determination of 3.5 owls. This determination will be made regardless of the known presence of any spotted owls.  If even a small amount of suitable habitat is removed a short time later in another project, another 3.5 owls will be said to be taken.  This could go on ad infinitum leading to the ridiculous conclusion that hundreds of owls could be “taken” from a single home range even if no owls were using the area.

Because the take determination for timber sales rely on the prohibition of harassment, the USFWS should be determining if the proposed action will “create the likelihood of injury to listed species to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavior patterns”.  Since they do not do this and rely on the three hard line thresholds, a take would not occur if a home range currently had 41% habitat and would be reduced to 40% by a project yet a take would occur if a home range had 40% suitable habitat and a project would reduce it to 39%.   The same would occur concerning the 50% threshold for the core area.

No-Take Requirement within the Western Oregon BLM RMP’s

The BLM recently adopted new Resource Management Plans (RMP’s) for the lands they manage in western Oregon.  Due to the precipitous decline in the spotted owl population being caused by the barred owl, the BLM agreed to not “take” any spotted owl until the USFWS adopts a barred owl management plan.  If this plan is not done in seven years, the BLM will have to re-consult with the USFWS on their RMP’s causing major disruptions to their land management and perhaps triggering revisions of the RMP’s.  There is zero probability that the USFWS will adopt a barred owl management plan in seven years and it is not likely to occur in the next 20 years if ever.

It should be noted that the USFWS has determined that without a drastic reduction in the size of the barred owl population, the spotted owl will become extinct in most of its range regardless of how much habitat is protected or created.  They recognize the importance of reducing the size of the barred owl population and realize the only mechanism to do this is by lethally removing them.  They therefore embarked on a research project to determine the effectiveness of lethal removal.  This study stared in 2013 and was to remove a total of 3,603 barred owls from four areas within four years.  This effort is going much more slowly than expected.  Between 2013 and 2017, only 819 barred owls have been removed.  Even if the rate of removal doubled, it will take another six years to complete the field work.  This will be followed by 10-15 years of analysis, development of a plan, environmental analysis of the plan and public involvement.  In the best case scenario, a plan may be adopted in 20 years.

The adoption of a plan does not mean the plan will actually be implemented.  To implement the plan, it will have to withstand lengthy legal challenges from opposing environmental groups and if successful, convince Congress to allocate millions of dollars every year to carry out the plan.  In the 20-30 years it will take to maybe start barred owl removal, the spotted owl will have already become extinct throughout much of its range. -Ross Mickey


The Worst Type of Government Waste

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance is typically the most costly part of implementing any type of vegetation management project on federally managed land.  Documents exceeding 200 pages are commonplace to comply with NEPA.  In 2015 the Roseburg District of the Bureau of Land Management completed one such analysis called Olalla-Camus.  This analysis focused on treatments designed to fulfil the BLM’s O&C mandate to provide a sustained production of timber on lands allocated for such production as directed by their 1994 Resource Management Plan.  Like all NEPA documents completed by federal agencies attempting to conduct active forest management and timber harvest, Olalla-Camus included an in-depth analysis on everything from wildlife habitat to carbon storage and beyond.  The timber sales analyzed under this document were estimated to provide about 16 MMBF of timber.

Next month the BLM will be offering the only timber sale generated off the Olalla-Camus EA for a total of 6.7 MMBF.  The remaining 10 MMBF considered in this EA will never be implemented.  This is due to the BLM’s new management plan completed in 2016, inconveniently finalized between the publication of the Olalla-Camus EA and the planned implementation of the treatments it considered.  Like the 1994 RMP, the 2016 RMP set aside many acres where sustained timber production cannot occur.  The only difference is that these “set-aside” acres grew exponentially.  Part of this “growth” includes the majority of the land included in the Olalla-Camus EA.  The BLM could have included a “grandfather clause” that would allow projects conceived and analyzed under the old management plan to move forward, but they didn’t.  The unfortunate result is the worst type of government waste-investments consuming large sums of money and time being squandered. -Andy Geissler


You Can’t Thin Forever

Since the inception of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon have limited their timber management paradigm to one of nearly exclusive thinning of young forest stands where post-harvest residual closed forest canopies make regeneration of Douglas-fir impossible.  This is an ecological truth: Douglas-fir seedlings need at least partial, but preferably full sunlight to grow and thrive.  AFRC has often clamored regarding the near-sighted nature of this management regime and questioned its long-term sustainability.  In recent months some federal agencies have come to terms with the same truth that AFRC and most foresters who practice their trade in the Pacific Northwest know well: you can’t thin forever.

The Salem BLM District recently published an environmental assessment that considered just how long they could manage their timber resources with a young stand thinning-only approach.  The results were disturbing but not surprising.  The EA, dated April, 2016 read: At the current rate of harvest it is likely the Salem District will exhaust most commercial thinning options in 40-80-year-old stands in a little over a decade.  In other words, the BLM timber program as we have come to know it, will expire in ten years on the Cascades Resource Area without a major shift in management practices.  And really, this timeline is likely pretty similar on other BLM Resource Areas, give or take five years.

I for one was elated when I read this.  It’s a gloomy outlook, but at least it’s realistic.  It’s akin to the longtime addict finally accepting that they are indeed an addict: Until the BLM overcomes the state of denial and accepts that their past twenty-year thinning-only regime is ultimately unsustainable then the likelihood of altering the trend is grim.  It appears that the Cascades Resource Area is on the path to recovery.  Perhaps an intervention is warranted for other Resource Area’s, or the Forest Service for that matter.  –Andy Geissler