Most would agree forest management is essential to reducing heavy fuel loads that contribute to unnaturally severe wildfires. Yet, anti-forestry obstruction and litigation are keeping federal land managers from reducing the risks to our national forests and nearby communities. This year’s devastating wildfire season is providing more examples of how timber projects are often delayed until it’s too late to save a forest.
The Crystal Clear Restoration Project was an effort by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce wildfire risks on the Mount Hood National Forest, protect nearby communities and restore habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. It would have treated over 11,000 acres of the forest by thinning overstocked stands at risk of wildfire.
This effort was halted after activist groups filed a lawsuit. In May, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ordered the national forest to complete additional paperwork before the thinning could begin. Unfortunately, portions of the project area have since burned up in the White River Fire. Early infrared information from the National Interagency Fire Center indicates it burned at intense heat.
Would thinning and reducing fuels have reduced the intensity of the White River Fire, and given firefighters a better opportunity to contain the blaze more quickly? Thanks to anti-forestry litigation, we’ll never know for sure.
In its 208-page Environmental Assessment of the project, the Forest Service determined current overstocked conditions would lead to uncharacteristically severe fires, including crown fires that destroy forests. The agency determined forest management activities, including logging, were needed to improve the forest’s resiliency to wildfire, and even to create quality habitat for Northern Spotted Owls that are currently not found in the area.
The activist groups initially challenged the restoration project in U.S. District Court, mischaracterizing the project as “commercially logging thousands of acres of old growth” at the expense of the owl. The district court rejected claims that there is scientific controversy over thinning in order to reduce the risk of wildfire, and the judge recognized that less than 1% of the project was in old-growth stands.
The district court judge had also denied a request for an injunction against the project, finding that the public interest favored action to decrease the risk of catastrophic fire and to support the local economy through the sale of timber.
The decision was appealed to the 9th Circuit, which wrongly second-guessed the agency and the expertise of professional land managers and scientists, and indefinitely postponed the project. Attorneys for the activist groups submitted agenda-driven research, and other information funded by anti-forestry groups, which criticized the effectiveness of thinning overstocked and fire-prone forests. The panel found the Forest Service didn’t properly weigh this information, and ordered the agency to conduct additional analyses.
It is too late to save these forests from the White River Fire. Even more troubling, the 9th Circuit panel’s decision has negative implications for the use of forest management activities, in this case thinning activities, that are based in real science and are proven to protect public lands and communities from wildfire, and provide true conservation benefits.
This story is all too common throughout Oregon and the West, where our public lands agencies and their experts have worked to reduce severe and dangerous risks to our landscapes. With millions of acres of federal lands at risk of devastating wildfires, projects to reduce fuels and promote our forests’ resiliency to wildfires have been stymied by obstruction and litigation based on flawed and agenda-driven science.
Only Congress can provide relief by providing these agencies the tools and resources to implement preventive forest management activities that spares our forests and communities from this devastation.