Conservation groups file legal challenge to restore protections for wildlife, water, and large trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington

Here’s a press release about a lawsuit just filed on an issue that has been discussed and debated here on this blog for a number of years now. If you have any specific questions about the lawsuit, a copy of the complaint is linked below. The press release also lists email addresses and phone numbers for the groups involved, as well as the attorney. People are encouraged to reach out to them directly. However, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, some people are welcome to continue attacking me for posting a press release or offering up a bunch of conspiracy theories about why environmental groups want to protect larger trees on public lands (and we can pretend that environmental groups haven’t been trying to do that for many decades). Thanks. – mk

Pendleton, Oregon—Six conservation groups filed a lawsuit today challenging a Trump-era rule change that allows logging of mature and old growth forests on no less than 7 million acres across Eastern Oregon and Washington. The coalition filed its suit over the Forest Service’s decision to eliminate a provision of the Eastside Screens that prohibited the logging of trees larger than 21” in diameter.

The Eastside Screens were initially put in place by the Forest Service to protect remaining habitat for old-growth-dependent wildlife; certain species were in rapid decline after decades of logging of the biggest trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington’s national forests. For more than 20 years, the Screens reined in the removal of large trees and prevented unnecessary conflict on many logging projects.

However, in the final days of the Trump administration, the Forest Service removed the long-standing protection for at least 11,000 square miles of national forest in Eastern Oregon and Southeast Washington despite overwhelming evidence that large trees play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change. The amendment has been criticized for being a politically-motivated action that circumvented public and tribal involvement and ignored an established and growing body of science that contradicts the decision.

The complaint alleges that the decision violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and National Forest Management Act (NFMA). The groups also notified the agency of their intent to enforce Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for fish and wildlife that depend on older forests.

“It’s no surprise the Trump administration ignored the science when it pushed this rule change through on its way out the door. Cutting down the remaining big trees harms salmon, steelhead, and bull trout by removing shade and forest cover that keeps rivers and streams cool,” explained Chris Krupp with WildEarth Guardians.

While the decision to eliminate the prohibition on logging trees larger than 21” in diameter was made with little attention to the effects on fish and wildlife that rely on these forests, it also curtailed public involvement in the rulemaking process; it ignored the opinion of over 115 independent scientists, former agency leadership, and dozens of conservation, climate, Indigenous, and other organizations.

“Large trees play a critical role in supporting biodiversity, clean water, and native fish. It is important to retain all remaining large trees as they are scarce on the landscape after a century of high-grade timber harvests that targeted large, old trees,” said Amy Stuart with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness.

A recent scientific study found that the biggest and oldest trees covered by the rule make up only 3% of regional forests in the Pacific Northwest yet store 42% of forest carbon. They also provide critical habitat for wildlife, keep water clean and cold, are resilient to wildfire, and are at the core of cultural values.

“The Forest Service violated its legal duty to protect wildlife and forest health when it removed protections for our biggest, fire-resistant trees. Now that these trees are being logged across six national forests, we are asking the court to halt this tragedy,” said Rory Isbell with Central Oregon LandWatch.

In addition, President Biden recently issued Executive Order (EO 14072, April 22), which aims to “conserve America’s mature and old-growth forests on Federal lands” as a part of a science-based approach to reduce wildfire risk and combat the climate and biodiversity crisis.

“We are facing a climate and biodiversity crisis, but the Forest Service continues to move in exactly the wrong direction. We are asking the Biden administration to take action consistent with its recent Executive Order and restore bedrock protections for mature and old growth forests on our public land,” said Rob Klavins, public lands advocate for Oregon Wild based in rural Wallowa County.

The groups ask that the current administration restore protections for large trees in our national forests to support wildlife, clean water, and carbon storage on public lands. They also ask Senators Wyden and Merkley to support mature and old growth protections in the State of Oregon.

Greater Hells Canyon Council, Oregon Wild, Central Oregon LandWatch, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians, and the Sierra Club are represented by Crag Law Center attorneys Meriel Darzen and Oliver Stiefel.

For more information, see the FAQs; for maps and photos, see the Press Folder.

17 thoughts on “Conservation groups file legal challenge to restore protections for wildlife, water, and large trees in Eastern Oregon and Washington”

  1. The classic conundrum and confusion of big vs “old.” I’m sure many of us on this blog have walked amongst 50 year old stands that were larger in diameter and height than old growth in parts of the world. Likewise, I’m sure you’ve cored a little runt and found out he’s hundreds of years old.
    So if we’re concerned about carbon storage, should we remove fir which competes with large old pines and reduces the stand’s vigor? That would increase the resilience of the stand, but it would involve removing “large old trees.” Or are we more concerned with total volume and preservation of every tree? That option packs on more carbon, but increases intertree competition and lowers stand resilience. The question is complex…

    • Hey Big Pondo,

      How many 50 year old trees are bigger than 21″ DBH in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington national forests? My guess is 0.01% of all trees on these national forests. But sure, cool point.

      I’m not at all saying that anyone should do this, but how many generations would it take to “remove fir” under 21″ from 11,000 square miles of national forest in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington?

      • Big Pondo said “in parts of the world,” not “eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.” On the Oregon Coast Range for example — just a few miles to the west of eastern Oregon — virtually every spruce, redcedar, Doug fir, and hemlock is greater than 21 DBH at age 50. Same with cottonwoods, many bigleaf maple, and lots of alder. Here is what I wrote on the topic, “Size Matters”:

        The increasingly fewer members of the “old-growth-dependent” animal kingdom have grown increasingly more expensive and destructive to identify, locate, enumerate, and accommodate. Maybe managing our forests for carbon storage is an even dumber idea.

        • Thanks Bob for mentioning an entirely different ecosystem. I’m not sure anyone who stumbles on this blog isn’t aware that trees can grow pretty quickly on the Oregon Coast Range. Do you care to wager a guess at how many 50 year old trees on national forests in eastern Oregon are 21″+ DBH?

          • Hi Matt: I was responding to Big Pondo’s “parts of the world” comment, not the tighter focus of eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. Point being that if you are managing for carbon storage, then it only makes sense to grow oranges in Florida, rather than Oregon. If it’s just aesthetics or politics, then those are different considerations.

            So far as a wager, I would guess that there are tens of thousands of 50-year-old trees in eastern Oregon in the Blues, Ochocos, and Cascades that exceed 21-inches DBH. Close? Or more?

  2. No attacks from this quarter. Isn’t it likely that the Biden administration will restore the prior rule? I’m curious about why the plaintiffs felt the need to file a lawsuit.

    • If you follow the links to the FAQs, it says this (and more about their efforts to resolve it without suing): “Since the decision to weaken the Screens was put into place, the agency has been put under tremendous pressure by the timber industry and logging collaboratives to put them to use. Now that the agency has begun putting out and developing controversial projects that log our largest and most fire-resistant trees, and sensitive forests, the harms are no longer abstract.”

      • Hi Jon: So what is are the “harms” caused by logging bigger trees? The ones I’ve heard listed all seem pretty abstract to me. Sounds like another one for the courts.

  3. This is similar to the debates going on in the Sierra, where there is a 30 inch limit. The new forest plans and USFS spotted owl “conservation” strategy allow for “flexibility” to the diameter limit, especially for fir and cedar. The flexibility is broad enough for any log truck to drive through. All the docs the agency put out cite anecdote as fact there are too many >30 inch trees, despite study after study showing there is a deficit of all species >24 inches. The agency response is that the studies are at the landscape scale, so stands with too many >30s are washed out by the low number of >24s across the landscape. My response has always been, “Show me. Let’s go. Take me to this mythical stand with too many >30s and let’s put in a few plots.” Not once has a USFS forester taken me up on this.

    How many of these fantasy stands are there? In all the field trips I’ve been on with USFS staff to logging projects, no one has pointed out one of these stands. Since there are clearly not very many of them, why can’t one do a non-significant forest plan amendment for a project to treat one of these unicorns? The failure to provide any real evidence there are too many >30s is pretty damning evidence that there-is-no-there-there.

    I also hear foresters say, “There’s no ecological justification for a diameter limit.” Are you kidding me? Again, there are many studies showing there’s a deficit of trees >24 inches of all species across the Sierra. Not to mention, there sure as hell isn’t an ecological justification for a timber target. As long as there is an ecologically unjustified timber target, there’s a need for an ecologically based diameter limit.

    There is no doubt that the industry would take every large tree out there if they were given the choice…history proves that. No matter what the sideboards are for reducing the removal of large trees, the industry will be pushing back against them and loose standards and guidelines will be abused. Get rid of the timber targets and we can talk about getting rid of rigid diameter limits.

    • There are many ways to ‘spin’ the data to arrive at a deficit of large trees. Yes, if you include wildfires, clearcuts (old and new) and bark beetles, over the entire landscape, then it is obvious without “many studies”. It also matters what you set the non-deficit levels to.

      I’m not a fan of raising diameter limits, across the board. I do think there is benefit to plucking-out some of those decadent, mistletoe-infected white firs, to benefit the remaining pines. Finally, I’m OK with an increased level of thinning under the current rules, laws and policies. When we get all that done, maybe alter the diameter limits. Such projects cut trees that average about 15 inches in diameter.

      There have been debates about this for a long time. In a perfect world, we could trust skilled foresters to balance all the issues in trying to decide whether to cut that one tree, or not. We’re not there, yet.

  4. A recent [*flawed] scientific study found that the biggest and oldest trees covered by the rule make up only 3% of regional forests in the Pacific Northwest yet store 42% of forest carbon. They also provide critical habitat for wildlife, keep water clean and cold, are resilient to wildfire, and are at the core of cultural values.


    • But can they sing and dance? That’s quite a lot of accomplishments for a big tree. How do they “keep water clean and cold,” for example? Is that how evapotranspiration works? How many survived the Labor Day Fires? And at the “core” of what/whose “cultural values?” Are we talking about the environmental law industry here? Maybe I should follow the link, but the “[*flawed]” warning and description made me think better of that idea.

      • The link is a paper refuting the paper Matt cites as justification for putting the east side screen temporary rule back in place

        • Thanks Patrick: Now you made me follow the link. I was pleased to find that it was to a short text, and included the familiar names of Law, Franklin and Johnson — with some good references to Hessburg.

          Then, it was all about managing eastside Oregon forests strictly for carbon content. The basic cites and points are good, so far as forest management is concerned, but then the very first sentence of the “Discussion” is: “Avoiding catastrophic effects of rising global temperatures is the most important challenge facing human civilization.”

          So that’s where I stopped reading. These people have a great amount of political power somehow, but their forest management objectives continue to seem increasingly foolish and irrelevant, over time. Certainly not “scientific.” Personal opinion.

          • Actually, the paper clearly argues that dry eastern forests should NOT be managed specifically for carbon storage and that if one were to do so they should do so by actively managing stands to protect long-term storage in large diameter fire-adapted species (e.g. PP). On another note, I find your lack of curiosity in the plethora of literature detailing the multitude of effects of climate change on our forests surprising, especially for someone who claims to be a forest ecologist.

            • Hi Patrick: It’s not that I have a “lack of curiosity” regarding climate change, I’m more liked burned out on the topic. I delivered a peer-reviewed paper on climate change in 1991 to an international group of scientists at OSU and for the past 10 years I have been comoderator of the Global Warming Realists blog, which includes a number of scientists with national and international reputations. My indifference to managing forests with an objective to store carbon is based on my own experience and past readings. I’m also indifferent to managing forests with a focus on federal ESA regulations for similar reasons. The “[historical] ecologist” title was awarded to me by others in the academic community, not a personal “claim.” I do claim to use my real name, though, for credibility purposes.


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