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Forest Service responds to most recent legal challenges against removal of trees infected with laminated root rot

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Portions of the Walton Lake area are closed to the public to protect people from falling trees.

Ochoco National Forest appears poised to move forward with a diseased tree removal project near Walton Lake.

The project, first announced in December 2015, would remove fir trees infected with laminated root rot, which creates a public safety issue and increases fire danger, and remove fir trees that are encroaching on legacy ponderosa pines to reduce the stress of competition and conserve the mature ponderosa forest.

Laminated root disease has infected Douglas and grand firs in the proposed project area, rotting the trees at the base from the inside. Infected fir trees fall without warning, creating a safety hazard for recreationists and leaving a base of hazardous fuels that raises the potential for unwanted, high-intensity wildfire.

The native tree disease is caused by a fungus that rots and decays the root system of various conifers. Trees that are highly susceptible to laminated root rot can be killed and include conifers like Douglas fir, white and grand firs, and mountain hemlock.

Laminated root rot is considered the most damaging root disease of forest trees in Oregon and Washington, and because of that, it is also one of the most hazardous to people and property in popular developed recreation areas.

The Walton Lake project has yet to launch due to continued legal challenges, leaving portions of the recreation area closed to the public. Ochoco National Forest issued a one-year closure in May 2017 of around 40 acres of forest near Walton Lake. The closure was extended in May 2018.

The most recent challenge to the project came in 2018 when attorneys for conservation groups convinced a judge to halt the project and were awarded more than $180,000 in attorney fees. Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project raised concerns that ONF failed to rescope the project and stated that the public participation process for the project continues to be flawed and illegal. Some specific objections include claims that ONF is basing its safety concerns on a Google search, that the project would negatively impact the aesthetics of the Walton Lake area, and that an environmental analysis failed to examine viable alternatives to the project.

ONF has recently addressed these and other formal objections, a final step toward implementing the project. The agency noted that the safety risk was based on best available science and pointed out that the aesthetics of the area were considered while examining different alternatives and determining how to best deal with the laminated root rot issue.

Irene Jerome, a forester working with American Forest Resource Council, says the Walton Lake project will help promote the resiliency of forests within the project area while reducing the risks of severe wildfire and insect infestations.

"For several years, we have urged the Ochoco National Forest to follow regional guidance for the management of developed recreation areas by taking aggressive action to control laminated root rot," she said. "The Walton Lake Restoration Project will help contain this disease, mitigate bark beetle attacks, and promote the growth of large pines and other trees. We are encouraged the national forest remains committed to this effort."

Crook County Judge Seth Crawford voiced his support for the project, stressing that the use of forest management tools is necessary to protect visitors from falling trees.

"Walton Lake is an important recreational asset in our community that is enjoyed by residents and visitors throughout the year, yet an unhealthy forest puts these visitors in danger," Crawford said. "For years, laminated root rot has weakened the root systems of infected trees, which could break and fall at any time without warning. Crook County supports this project, which addresses a clear public safety hazard, and we strongly encourage the Ochoco National Forest to proceed after years of litigation-driven delays."

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