Logging Road deep into the wild (photo by Cascadia Wildlands).

Op-Ed: The Slippery Slope of Hazard-Tree Logging

by Dylan Plummer, CW Grassroots Organizer
Originally published in The Register-Guard, March 27, 2021.

Pacific Northwest forests are crisscrossed with roads — enough logging roads alone to circle the planet 13 times. Some asphalt, some gravel, some renowned for their scenic vistas and traveled by visitors from around the world, others rarely used, converted to trails or permanently decommissioned. These roads are among the most harmful human impacts to our forests: increasing wildfire risk, releasing sediment into our waterways and chopping up intact habitat into small, degraded remnants. 

With last summer’s historic climate-driven wildfires, our heavily road-fragmented forests are facing another challenge, albeit a natural one. Now instead of threading through a verdant tunnel of green, many forest roads are lined with blackened trunks. While disconcerting, this transformation isn’t permanent.

These public forests are already recovering, with sprouts emerging from the soot and birds chirping among the burned trees. While the woods are beginning to heal, these burned lands are still extremely delicate, and the road network makes them more so. Despite this, our forests are facing a devastating threat: tens of thousands of acres proposed for clear-cut logging under the guise of “hazard tree removal” along forest roads. 

Unlike conventional logging, these proposals are essentially 150- to 200-foot-wide clear-cuts that run for miles on either side of the road and do not adhere to environmental regulations. Steep-slope restrictions, buffers for drinking water sources and wildfire resilience considerations — all out the window in the name of “hazard reduction.”

Both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are proposing — or are already carrying out — unprecedented amounts of roadside logging in beloved and environmentally sensitive areas, including along decommissioned roads in the Opal Creek and Breitenbush areas, and iconic wild rivers including the McKenzie, Santiam and North Umpqua. To make things worse, both agencies intend to use a variety of legal loopholes to carry out this logging without environmental review or public input. The agencies are pushing one of the largest timber grabs we’ve seen on public forests in decades, and while it began under Trump, it is now being carried out with zeal by the Biden administration.

The impacts of the proposals pose more of a hazard than they could possibly hope to mitigate. Logging in a fire-impacted forest sets the forest back decades in its natural process of recovery and creates unnecessary threats to our communities, our drinking water and our climate.

We must ask ourselves, how does landscape-level logging, water-quality degradation and increasing threats of landslide and wildfire improve our public safety?

While particularly hazardous, burned trees leaning over high-use thoroughfares should absolutely be removed; linear clear-cuts along thousands of miles of rarely used and decommissioned roads are indefensible.

If these agencies want to reduce hazards, they must drop plans to log all but the most frequently used roads, allow for meaningful public participation in the process, conduct the legally required environmental and safety analyses and take this opportunity to permanently close the many unneeded and damaging forest roads throughout the region. 

Let’s ensure the outstanding recreation, ecosystem services and climate mitigation values of these post-fire forests are prioritized over the short-term gains of the timber industry. 

Dylan Plummer, Grassroots Organizer for Cascadia Wildlands.
His column appears in the Register-Guard on the fourth Saturday of the month.