Forest Service considers changing 21-inch harvest rule for E. Oregon forests

From Capitol Press:

PORTLAND — The U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to amend a 25-year-old rule that prohibits logging large trees across six national forests in Central and Eastern Oregon.

Known as the “Eastside screens,” the policy was originally adopted in 1995 and included a ban on harvesting any trees with a diameter greater than 21 inches east of the Cascades to protect old-growth forests, water quality and wildlife habitat.

Though the 21-inch standard was supposed to be temporary at the time, it has remained in effect for all or parts of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur, Ochoco, Deschutes and Fremont-Winema national forests, which together add up to nearly 10 million acres of federally owned land.

Forest managers, however, may finally be ready to make changes based on advances in science and a better understanding of the different landscapes.

The Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station issued a report in February, stating that removing some 21-inch-diameter trees — especially those that are large, young and thrive in shade — may actually be desirable for forest restoration goals.

More here….

23 thoughts on “Forest Service considers changing 21-inch harvest rule for E. Oregon forests”

  1. I think what’s interesting about this is that: folks in silviculture knew these things at at the time. It was a deal that was done based on public concerns and not particularly “science”- although I don’t know the details of the history. Raises the question of why it took 25 years to legitimate field observations, and does raise the (hopefully, past) Oregon cultural phenomenon of tending to apply great ideas for west-side Oregon (where scientists aggregate and are funded to study) to places with vastly different conditions.

    “Twenty-five years later, researchers are finding the rule does have apparent flaws. For example, it does not allow foresters to remove young trees of certain species that may be larger than 21 inches, but do not provide the same benefits and are more prone to burning in massive wildfires.

    In its report, the Pacific Northwest Research Station described the 21-inch rule as a “blunt policy instrument” in response to widespread public support for conserving old-growth forests, but does not account for complex forest stands or provide flexibility to make site-specific management decisions.

    “Tree diameter alone is an insufficient guide for restoration, and for managing landscapes for resilience to climate change and related stressors,” the report states.

    Researchers say amendments should take into account factors such as tree species, age, spatial patterns, soil, near- versus long-term threats to tree stands from drought, insects and pathogens.”

    Those do seem like reasonable things to take into account, as they have always been.

  2. I think it would be a good move. I think the decision on which trees to remove should be site specific depending on what the prescribed management objectives are. I never liked diameter limits. I have seen a valuable wood left to rot or turned into firewood.

  3. I think a better idea is to have a list of reasons (or conditions) why a larger tree could get cut. That list would have to be agreed upon, using science and full transparency.

    One thing that sounds strange. “… it does not allow foresters to remove young trees of certain species that may be larger than 21 inches, but do not provide the same benefits and are more prone to burning in massive wildfires.” Young trees larger than 21″ dbh on the eastside seem more like leave trees, to me. Of course, it is all site-specific. If they are young firs growing underneath bigger pines, then yes, it would be good to take some of those out.

    Trading the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ system for another one doesn’t sound best, to me.

    • Larry, that’s what I thought they probably meant.. if a 22 inch true fir (grand?) is next to a 30 inch ponderosa. I do think young could be different in the eyes of the beholder (as we’re discussing on the Daniel Boone with Jim Scheff). Young (20-30 years?) Young (younger than overstory trees however old they are?) Young, younger than what counts as “mature” for that species? Could be very confusing.

      • There is a zone (within the eastside area) that parallels the Cascadian crest, where true fir and Doug-fir compete with the ponderosa pines. Maybe it is those areas where young trees could reach 21 inches, while still being somewhat suppressed by the overstory. In those drier areas, trees larger than 21 inches are less common.

  4. There’s an extensive amount of research that documents widespread grand fir encroachment into both Ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests in the Blues: on the Malheur NF for example, there is a plethora of large but young (less than 120 years, and many less than 100) grand fir right up underneath the old growth pine and larch. The grand fir are not fire resistant and are very thirsty trees, depriving the pine and larch of critical moisture.

    It is relatively easy to identify old pine, larch, and fir (grand fir is a bit trickier, but still identifiable). See: and

    • I remember talking about that in the 80’s (I worked on the Ochoco, Fremont, Winema and Deschutes at the time). As I recall, the grand fir were also susceptible to spruce budworm which had had or was having an outbreak. Perhaps there was a team or Spruce Budworm Program working on it?

      I also recall that we made fun of FORPLAN on the Deschutes which seemed to say “cut the pine, leave the fir” because the model had info that the fir grows faster, and apparently didn’t have info on the other, less desirable, aspects of fir-hood.

      More widely, without fire running through, it seems like that is common (ingrowth of true fir) south of the Blues in Oregon and California as well, but with white fir (concolor) and white/grand hybrids.

  5. I think the East-side screens plan amendments were intended to be temporary until there could be decisions made on what was appropriate for each forest’s ecosystems. As time went on I was assuming that would happen when they revised their forest plans, but they don’t seem to be able to do that. I still have to wonder if it’s such a big problem that it’s worth starting significant amendments when revisions are way overdue. I haven’t heard anything about whether forests are using project-specific amendments that could accomplish the same thing site-specifically until plans are revised.

    This is not a time when there is a lot of trust that the Forest Service is really thinking about ecological goals. I’m with Larry that any amendment would have to include objective criteria for what is old growth and why big trees could be logged. Any changes would clearly implicate the diversity provisions of the 2012 Planning Rule and amendments would have to provide conditions necessary for at-risk species that need old growth forests.

    • The eastside screens were definitely supposed to be temporary, until ICBEMP came on line (which never happened). Judge Hogan specifically upheld the screens on the basis that they were temporary – but that was 23 years ago.

      Fire suppression, legacy logging effects, and continued extensive grazing is absolutely a problem in the Blues. The forests have been using site-specific forest plan amendments, but have also run into the requirement that the agency 1) explain why a site-specific amendment, and not a forestwide amendment, is appropriate (e.g., why here and why now); and 2) account for the cumulative effects of the amendment. Since the ecological condition is widespread, it is harder and harder to justify a site-specific amendment.

      An alternative would be to revise the plans, obviously. This has been politically difficult, with the counties and their supporters largely sinking the last attempted revision in 2018. Perhaps a different administration would have more luck (it would also help to use the 2012 planning rule and not the 1982 rule).

      Although I like big trees, big is not the same as old, and old – small and large – has important ecological value that needs to be cultivated on the landscape. Big grand fir does not have the same ecological value as big (and old) pine, for example. Big and old grand fir – where it occurs (which isn’t a lot of places given its susceptibility to insects, disease, and fire) – should remain on the landscape, and no one is talking about logging old growth of any diameter or species.

      Agree with Jon that this amendment will trigger the substantive provisions of the 2012 rule, and the USFS is already thinking about what this will mean for new plan components. It is likely that most if not all wildlife needs will be met with a coarse filter approach that protects and creates more older forest, given that viability and persistence isn’t an issue (generally) in the Blues: just not a lot of conifer-dependent at-risk wildlife there.

      • Susan, since the Screens were after my time, I didn’t realize that they also applied to the Fremont- Winema. So it sounds like the Screens are a decision overlaid over all the forest plans in the Blues and then all the way to the California border. Would they have to revise all the forest plans in Central and Eastern Oregon to update the screens?

        Also, why do you think it would be easier to use the 2012 Rule than the 1982?

        • The screens amended the forests not covered by the Northwest Forest Plan in OR and WA, so, basically the eastern halves of both states that don’t have northern spotted owls.

          The Forest Service’s proposed amendment covers this range in Oregon only.

          In my opinion, the 2012 planning rule is geared towards addressing disturbance, climate, and viability issues in a comprehensive manner that was not the focus of the 1982 rule. The 2012 rule requires the use of the best available science, which the 1982 rule does not. In addressing difficult natural resource management challenges, I think the 2012 rule provides the horsepower necessary to develop durable plans. That said, I have yet to see the agency successfully pull it off.

    • 21 dbh doesn’t really seem that big. Larger diameter trees are not always the oldest either.
      A couple of years ago while driving through eastern Oregon I noticed that very little fire salvage had taken place. I am now wondering if that was because of the 21″ limit. Does it include dead trees?

  6. 21″ isn’t large compared to western Oregon/Washington, but it’s fairly large in a landscape that has been thoroughly high-graded such that the truly very large trees are gone.

    I’m glad to hear you saw very little fire salvage on the eastside: must mean my litigation has been successful 🙂 But no, the 21″ rule does not prohibit the removal of dead trees 21″ and greater: it only applies to the retention of live green trees.

    • There are still some voices in the Sierra Nevada who grumble about the 30 inch rule. They like to claim that science can justify taking more of those bigger trees, especially to enhance oak populations. Timber markers are now directed to ‘space off of viable oak trees’, clearing out conifers close by. There is so much thinning-from-below to do that a change in diameter limits is not needed, especially right now.

      (Sure, it would be nice if we could take out some crappy trees larger than 30 inches, but…)

  7. Large trees, regardless of age or species, DO provide many of the same ecological functions as old trees. There may be a few functions that they do not provide, but this plan amendment will allow removal of large trees thus sacrificing their functions, even while there remains a significant shortage of large trees across the eastside. It would be nice if the amendment was tightly constrained to just allow cutting large young trees that are directly competing with large legacy pine trees, but that is not going to happen. It would also be nice to get a few other changes, such as protecting large dead trees, and protecting small old trees, but it won’t do that either. I am baffled by those who are promoting this amendment under the Trump administration.

    • Actually, there is no reason why those “larger trees” (which aren’t really that large, in the whole scheme of things) can’t be ‘Designated by Description’, with a specialized description. I would guess that eco-groups would fight ANY plans to cuts a few trees over 21 inches, regardless of site-specific conditions, as well as purpose and need.

      • “There is no reason” they can’t do it right? I might agree but the agency wants its discretion back and they wont settle for a narrow exemption from the 21″ diameter limit. The agency has been doing site-specific amendments, and they don’t get a ton of push-back when they are focusing on large young white fir in direct competition with legacy pines, but the agency keeps moving the goal posts. The Fremont-Winema has done several projects covering more than 100,000 acres each, in which the vast majority of those acres are eligible for large tree removal, and they get to pick from about 5 vague reasons to remove large trees, not just those in direct competition with legacy pines. Simply put, the agency can’t be trusted.

        • I’m sure there are some people who would like to do more of a ‘sanitation’ type of prescription, which was popular in the late 80’s. Many old growth trees have one thing or another ‘wrong with them’, making them vulnerable to being cut, under a ‘sanitation’ prescription.

          One of the hardest things for new timbermarkers to learn is whether to cut that one extra tree, or whether to save that one extra tree. They usually leave that extra tree, due to inexperience.

        • I don’t think the agency is any less trustworthy than academics, or journalists, or judges or any group that does things. The key thing to quality in any of these are processes that check on the quality of the effort. In every case, they are flawed. Peer review, editing, appeals and so on. So the FS is flawed as well.

          Maybe another way of looking at it is in some places there are fall-downs between NEPA and marking, and between marking and what is done on the ground.

          Sale administrators are responsible for the latter, and in my experience folks have used check-lists and other approaches for the former. Maybe Larry and other can weigh in on their experiences there.

          So perhaps the question is “what quality mechanisms would you feel confident in”? Have an independent group review all marked sales?

          Also, could you name the 100K projects, I would be interested in looking up their NEPA approach.

          • Sharon wrote, “I don’t think the agency is any less trustworthy than academics, or journalists, or judges or any group that does things.”

            Agreed. However, the agency is criticized far more than academics, journalists, collaborative groups, enviro groups, industry groups, etc. The Forest Service rarely is praised — its work, most of which is excellent, is vastly overshadowed by that criticism, whether it is justified or not.

            • Sadly, some extreme right-wingers spread lies and misinformation about the Forest Service, as well. They love to politicize the Agency, saying it is ‘full of liberals who sit on their butts all day’. Their arguments are often shrill, misinformed and incoherent. (based on Facebook examples)

              • “However, the agency is criticized far more than academics, journalists, collaborative groups, enviro groups, industry groups, etc.” Well, one difference is that the Forest Service is paid by our taxes to serve us. Maybe they are no less trustworthy, but they have to be more accountable. And of course they are trying to make themselves less so (particularly with forest plans). Monitoring is mostly a dodge because it is not enforceable, and they know it.

    • What is “not going to happen” could still be proposed as an alternative, and differences in effects would have to be considered, and reasons for not doing it would have to be explained in light of those effects. I hope someone (?) will be pushing the FS on that.


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