Thinning project argument centers on rebuilding roads
By Mateusz Perkowski
A 2,000-acre thinning project in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest has come under fire from environmentalists who argue it will destabilize erosion-prone soils.
Bark, an environmental group, asked a federal judge in Portland on March 7 to overturn the U.S. Forest Service’s approval of the Jazz timber sale.
“This land is inherently unstable,” said Brenna Bell, attorney for Bark, during the oral argument.
The commercial thinning of trees isn’t the focus of the lawsuit, she said.
Rather, it’s the rebuilding of 12 miles of roads that has drawn the ire of the plaintiffs, who argue the 2,000 acres have been set aside for conservation.
The Forest Service is “trying to ram the square peg of a timber sale into the round hole of a restoration project,” said Bell.
In rationalizing the project as ecologically benign, the agency has violated forest management and environmental laws, the group claims.
The project area is naturally susceptible to “earthflows” — soils shifting on a large scale — that the Forest Service must not risk reactivating, Bell said.
The agency justified the Jazz timber sale with language that was essentially “cut and pasted” from environmental analyses of previous projects, she said.
Bark is particularly concerned about the rebuilding of old roads because they have largely been absorbed by the forest, Bell said.
“It’s not a road anymore,” she said.
Runoff from the roads will add sediment to the water, which will be aggravated by logging truck activity, she said.
The agency should have examined a scaled-down project that wouldn’t require road rebuilding, which would still provide roughly 1,000 acres for thinning, she said.
“One watershed that is already in poor condition is getting the brunt of this action,” said Bell.
Bark’s allegations were countered by attorneys for the Forest Service and Interfor, a wood products company that seeks to process logs from the Jazz timber sale at its sawmill in Molalla, Ore.
“The project is going to improve the health of these trees as well as provide wood products for the local economy,” said Beverly Li, attorney for the Forest Service.
Roads will only be rebuilt in areas where experts have determined the slopes to be stable, Li said.
Increased sediment from rebuilding will be minimal — a change of about 0.1 percent — and Interfor will “obliterate” the roads when the project is finished, she said.
If the Forest Service reduced the scope of the project to eliminate all of Bark’s concerns, only 100 acres would be available for thinning, Li said.
The agency evaluated a range of alternatives in consultation with outside experts and environmental groups, she said. “Bark opted out.”
Interfor must abide by “best management practices” for the thinning project or be held in breach of its contract with the Forest Service, said Robert Molinelli, attorney for the company.
“BMPs are known to be effective and they will be implemented,” he said.
The Forest Service must be allowed to rely on its natural resource experts to develop the best plan for the project, Molinelli said.
“They’re not flying blind,” he said.