Post-fire logging that has already occurred in the Archie Creek area (photo by Cascadia Wildlands, 2021).

Opinion: The perils of cutting public out of post-fire forest decisions

by Rebecca White, CW Wildlands Director
Originally published in The Register-Guard, August 28, 2021.

Ever since 2020’s wildfires cooled, we’ve been taking calls from community members alarmed at the amount of burned forest being carted away by log trucks.

Much of what folks saw early on was so-called “salvage” clearcutting on private lands. Oregon’s notoriously weak Forest Practices Act makes challenging this rampant destruction nearly impossible. Reform is in the works.

The next wave — on full display along our scenic river corridors — showcased the Oregon Department of Transportation using emergency exemptions and FEMA funds to race ahead with overzealous roadside clear-cutting without any environmental review or public oversight. Investigative reporting and legislative inquiries ensued; the brakes were tapped, but much damage has been done.

The third wave is now in full swing. Our federal land management agencies have announced their own series of logging projects, though they are well aware that post-fire logging is among the most ecologically damaging activities possible.

Federal agencies are required by the National Environmental Policy Act to prepare an environmental review that fully and honestly evaluates the impacts of their actions, taking a hard look at what effects they will have on the ecosystem, carbon storage and human health. 

Unfortunately, many of our local federal land managers have chosen to test out various loopholes to avoid doing the required NEPA analysis. Without it, neither the agency nor the public knows what impacts may result. 

Federal agencies that are entrusted to manage our public lands should do better.

Federal agencies that are entrusted to manage our public lands should do better. That’s why we, with a coalition of allied groups, are challenging in court three federal post-fire logging projects that each attempt to evade NEPA in a different way.

First, we’ve asked the court to require the Willamette National Forest to overhaul its plan to log 200-foot-wide strips alongside 400 miles of roads, many of which are rarely, if ever, used. We agree hazard trees along necessary public access routes should be judiciously removed, but clearcutting across shuttered roads isn’t worth the risk of landslides or the negative impacts to drinking water, fish, wildlife and the climate. 

Notably, neighboring Mt. Hood National Forest has shown there’s a better way: It has committed not to log along any moderate or low-use roads and will do environmental reviews of upcoming post-fire logging.

Next, we’ve asked the court to stop the Willamette National Forest from clearcut logging along the McKenzie River. The Forest Service authorized restorative commercial thinning in these areas years ago to reduce fire risk and severity, but in the wake of the 2020 fires switched to clearcutting. This was done without any public notice or analysis of clear science showing that post-fire clearcutting will increase erosion, landslide risk and future fire hazard, while exacerbating climate change. 

And finally, we’ve notified the Bureau of Land Management that we intend to challenge its use of an unsound, 11th-hour, Trump-era rule allowing up to 3,000 acres of logging without environmental review. We firmly disagree with the agency’s ludicrous statement that its plan to clearcut almost 1,000 acres in the fragile, burned McKenzie watershed won’t have significant environmental impacts.

We hope these legal actions will encourage wiser choices going forward. In a few months, this year’s fires will cool. How the forests recover afterward depends on whether forest health — or profit — drives public land managers’ decisions.

Rebecca White is the Wildlands Director for Cascadia Wildlands. She directs Cascadia Wildlands’ forest defense work across Oregon and the Cascadia bioregion.