Lyle Pitley with Schuyler & Sons Inc. takes the cable wraps off a load of fire salvage timber at the Seneca Sawmill Company in Eugene (photo by Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard).

Local environmental group warns of lawsuit over BLM salvage harvest

By Adam Duvernay (RG Reporter)
Originally published in The Register-Guard, August 15

A number of environmental groups have warned the Bureau of Land Management they intend to sue if changes aren’t made to plans for a 910-acre salvage harvest near Vida.

BLM intends to conduct a salvage harvest on its land around Vida that was burned by the Holiday Farm Fire, which last year scorched 173,000 acres of the McKenzie River Valley. The agency is being challenged based on its use of Trump-era rule changes concerning salvage harvesting and potential impacts to endangered species living there.

The Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of environmental groups Cascadia Wildlands, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Oregon Wild, Soda Mountain Wilderness Council and Willamette Riverkeeper, sent BLM a notice of intent to sue unless it takes “immediate action to remedy your violations of the Endangered Species Act.” The letter, sent Wednesday, warns of a lawsuit if BLM doesn’t correct alleged violations in 60 days.

Agency spokeswoman Jennifer O’Leary said BLM won’t comment on pending litigation The agency is aware of the notice of intent to sue.

The notice of intent to sue concerns just one piece of planned litigation meant to stop the BLM harvest, said Western Environmental Law Center Staff Attorney Susan Jane Brown. The organizations primarily object to the use of a categorical exclusion, which allows BLM to conduct salvage harvests of certain sizes without environmental study.

Brown says in coming weeks the Western Environmental Law Center will file other complaints concerning alleged errors in promulgating the new categorical exclusion.  

Categorical Exclusion

The salvage acreage is within the Harvest Land Base, which is the land designated for sustainable timber harvest in the 2016 Western Oregon Resource Management Plans. BLM identified 1,300 acres in the Harvest Land Base with salvage operation potential.

Timber sales would generate between 15 million and 20 million board feet, BLM reports.

But a 2020 policy change has increased the size of salvage harvests BLM is allowed to conduct by using a categorical exclusion. Where once salvage harvests on more than 250 acres needed an environmental assessment to be published, a new policy allows BLM to skip publishing an assessment if the harvest is conducted on fewer than 1,000 acres.

In its notice of intent to sue, the Western Environmental Law Center alleges BLM is violating the Endangered Species Act by using the categorical exclusion without first consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to assure “federal actions are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered or threatened species.” 

The notice alleges the harvest could harm spotted owls, salmon and Pacific martens.

“By permitting salvage logging on up to 3,000 acres without detailed environmental review, it is highly likely that salvage logging operations will affect ESA-listed species and/or their critical habitats and will have effects on threatened, endangered and/or candidate species that are unaddressed,” according to the notice of intent to sue.

The notice admits it is “unclear” whether BLM performed the necessary consultations.

Brown said the Western Environmental Law Center requested and received documents through the Freedom of Information Act, which didn’t show the consolations were done.

BLM Upper Willamette Field Manager Rebecca Brooke approved the harvest May 26.

Brooke wrote in her decision the harvest would have “no significant impacts to the quality of the human environment.” Brooke said the harvest plan conforms to BLM standards and none of the extraordinary circumstances that could stay the harvest, such as negative impact to public health or natural resources, is a factor in culling the trees.

In a document outlining the salvage harvest, BLM said it will ensure the project does not impact spotted owls by implementing existing restrictions to reduce noise disturbance and conduct spotted owl surveys using the current survey protocol. The document says BLM will end the project if threatened or endangered species are found to be affected.

Clearing Highway 126

The Holiday Farm Fire, one of last year’s Labor Day fires that scorched 1 million acres in Oregon, burned down about 400 homes and left the McKenzie River Valley scarred.

A near constant stream of trucks along Highway 126 continue to pull out burned logs cut down as a safety measure, many bound for mills so they can be sold before the rotting or becoming infested with bugs. 

Debris Management Task Force crews removing hazard trees on Highway 126 were expected to finish their work last week, according to spokeswoman Nicole Sherbert. 

Those crews removed more than 21,270 damaged or dead trees along the highway, Sherbert said. The task force has contracted with Lane County to take over hazard tree removal on county roads, where about 7,730 await assessment and possible removal.

A number of trees assessed with the possibility of survival during the hazard tree removal process will be reassessed in coming weeks and, possibly, cut, Sherbert said.

“Those are the trees we wanted to give every chance possible to survive,” she said.

Rebecca White, wildlands director for Eugene-based environmental nonprofit Cascadia Wildlands, said groups like hers are worried too many trees are being cut in the process.

“We’ve had concerns all along the hazard tree guidelines the agencies are using, not just BLM but also the Forest Service,” she said. “ODOT has been doing pretty extensive clearing work and we think they’re not necessarily always adhering to all of the guidelines, perhaps not being conservative enough in choosing which trees to leave.”

Contact reporter Adam Duvernay at Follow on Twitter @DuvernayOR.