Nature groups want to save owl habitat, mature trees, which are more 'fire resilient'

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Groups including Bark, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands and WildEarth Guardians argue that the Mt. Hood National Forest's 12,000-plus acre timber sale is illegal because of possible environmental impact. Environmental advocacy groups filed a federal lawsuit Monday, Sept. 10, to challenge the proposed Crystal Clear Restoration timber sale in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

The proposed timber sale, the most extensive on Mt. Hood in more than a decade, would include 7,498 acres of commercial logging on the eastern shoulder of the forest near White River, including 3,494 acres of mature and old-growth forest.

Groups including Bark, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and WildEarth Guardians contend the 12,000-plus acre sale threatens endangered species habitat and increases fire hazards.

The lawsuit, filed in the Federal Court for the District of Oregon, notes that 36 miles of roads would be built, and old-growth trees that are resilient to fires would be cut.

"They're positioning this as a fuels-reduction project," Brenna Bell, legal representation for Bark told The Post in a previous interview. "Mature forest is the most resilient."

Bell argues that "fire can only justify so much logging," and that the Forest Service's proposed 12,000-acre sale is well over what is appropriate.

The timber sale amounts to roughly double the recent annual amounts of timber-cutting in the forest.

Other points of contention for the advocacy groups include the potential impact of the project on the northern spotted owl.

"The entire project is located in critical habitat for the northern spotted owl," Bell noted in a recent statement. "Logging would remove 2,000 acres of currently functioning owl habitat."

In a prior interview, Casey Gatz, then Forest Service project leader on the restoration, said "We are maintaining as much of the owls' habitat as possible. The northern spotted owl is definitely a species we have to plan for."

Furthermore, the groups argue that the logging will adversely affect the flora and waterways in the area.

"Forest roads bleed sediment into rivers and streams, split apart wildlife habitat, create barriers to migration and invite invasive species. There is no way the agency needs all of the hundreds of miles of roads in the project area," said Marla Fox, attorney for WildEarth Guardians, in a prepared statement. "Removing and rehabilitating unneeded roads would improve watershed health and habitat connectivity, but the Forest Service did not prioritize this type of real restoration work."

"The Forest Service has failed to explain why it is choosing to conduct extensive logging that will transfer thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from the forest to the atmosphere and make climate change worse, when sound forest conservation could actually be part of the solution," noted Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild.

In the past, Bell has also expressed concern over the preliminary process the Forest Service underwent for the CCR project.

She noted that officials had previously led a more "inclusive" process, but this time around "they didn't even give us the chance to go through the collaborative process."

In an earlier response to such claims by Bell, Gatz assured The Post that the Forest Service invited Bark to a field trip last fall to discuss concerns and ask questions about the project, but nobody showed up.

Ultimately, this perceived exclusivity and lack of transparency on the service's part are what Bark cites as reason to file.

"We had no chance to work out the kinks of the sale," Bell said. "The Forest Service is unwilling to collaborate. We tried really hard to avoid ending up back in court."

Bell noted that she sees a disconnect between "the rhetoric driving this sale" and "what is happening on the ground."

"I think the issue is the sale is just illegal," she added. "The whole (area) is dedicated as habitat for the spotted owl. (Logging there is) just against the law."

She claims, possibly because of Forest Service staff turnover, that the required environmental analysis of the proposed area was not as thorough as it should have been.

"They basically skipped that," Bell noted. "It was an inadequate analysis for a project of that magnitude. The take home part for us is the Forest Service and the timber industry are really pushing fear of fire as a reason to log. They're taking it a step too far.

The Forest Service was contacted and declined to comment at the time of press because of the newly litigious nature of the project.

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