Time has come to improve management of Oregon's eastside national forests
As wildfires rage in Oregon and throughout the West, the U.S. Forest Service has an important opportunity to change course on a flawed and unscientific policy, which would help accelerate forest restoration and fuels reduction on national forests east of the Cascades.
Earlier this year the agency initiated a process to amend the Bill Clinton-era Wildlife Standard of the Eastside Screens, also known as the Eastside Screens.The Eastside Screens was originally adopted as a "temporary" rule prohibiting the removal of trees larger than 21 inches in diameter (21-inch rule) on national forests east of the Cascades, including the Malheur, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, Deschutes, Ochoco and Fremont-Winema. With little public involvement or scientific justification, this temporary rule became permanent.The outcome of the rule has been overstocked, fire-prone and insect-infested forests. The lack of active forest management has also hurt our economy and decreased access to public lands.In recent years, a growing body of science supports the removal of some trees greater than 21 inches to maintain and develop late and old forest structure. In overstocked forests, for example, removing some large fir trees can help pine trees grow larger and protect them from catastrophic wildfire. Effectively managing forests under the 21-inch rule is problematic due to the diverse forest conditions in Eastern Oregon. Anti-forestry groups have exploited the rule to stop projects they don't like. This policy has also reduced timber harvests on regional national forests, which has resulted in mill closures, jobs losses, reduced capacity to perform needed restoration treatments, and reduced revenues to county governments.Over the past few months, the Forest Service has conducted extensive public outreach to explain the science and justify the need for a new direction. The agency has also received public feedback. Diverse interests – ranging from counties to hunting and recreation groups to forestry organizations – have urged the agency to remove the Eastside Screens as a barrier to forest management. Predictably, anti-forestry groups prefer the status quo.In early August, the Forest Service released its Preliminary Environmental Assessment with proposed alternatives for replacing the Eastside Screens. The agency's "preferred alternative" is to retain the 21-inch diameter limit, but to replace this "standard" with a "guideline" that emphasizes the retention of old and large trees. However, there is a more effective alternative that is based in science and will enable land managers to better achieve the desired conditions on any given landscape. Under the Adaptive Management alternative, the 21-inch standard would be removed. Management activities would not include an arbitrary size or age requirement. All other standards would be maintained as they currently exist, including moving unhealthy forested stands toward the desired condition of healthy, late and old-structure forest.In fact, even the Forest Service's own environmental analysis concludes that the Adaptive Management alternative is more effective than any other alternative in promoting the growth and health of late and old forest structure. That's because it would give land managers the greatest flexibility to remove trees based on project and site-specific desired conditions.Logging, thinning and prescribed fires are important active forest management tools to help achieve our shared goals of healthy forests with large trees. According to the Environmental Assessment, the number of large trees in unmanaged forests has increased by 8.5 percent in the past decade. In comparison, managed forests have seen an increase of 12.9 percent in the number of large trees on the landscape. Without an arbitrary diameter limit, the agency can treat more acres, which will help protect and grow more large trees.Throughout this process, the Forest Service has been clear it is seeking a solution that is "ecologically, socially and politically durable." Elected officials, forest user groups and citizens throughout Central and Eastern Oregon have called for a solution that removes the 21-inch diameter limit entirely.It would be a tremendous missed opportunity if the Forest Service bowed to a vocal minority by selecting an alternative that isn't based in science and continues to stymie the management and restoration of our forests. Hopefully, the Forest Service will get it right. Irene Jerome is Oregon/Idaho Consultant to the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC). Nick Smith is Public Affairs Director for AFRC and Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities. Both Nick and Irene advocate for active forest management on federally owned forests.
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