PORTLAND — The Trump administration is removing a decades-old ban on logging large trees in six national forests across Eastern Oregon and southeast Washington.

USDA Undersecretary James Hubbard signed off on the decision Jan. 15, amending the rule that prohibits cutting down any trees larger than 21 inches in diameter. 

The 21-inch harvest rule is part of a broader suite of management standards, known as the Eastside Screens, adopted in 1995 to protect wildlife habitat and water quality on roughly 10 million acres of federal land in the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur, Ochoco, Deschutes and Fremont-Winema national forests. 

Rather than a blanket restriction on logging large trees, the U.S. Forest Service will replace the 21-inch rule with a more flexible guideline that generally calls for protecting old-growth forests, but allows land managers to make exceptions if they meet the agency's long-term restoration goals.

Under the decision, "old trees" are defined as at least 150 years, and "large trees" are defined as 30 inches in diameter for grand fir and white fir, and 21 inches for any other species.

"This will help us to better manage forests for wildfires and other disturbances, and to protect old trees that are hard to replace once lost," said Pacific Northwest Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa.

Emily Platt, project coordinator for the Forest Service said that — while it may seem counterintuitive — logging certain types of large trees can actually improve forest health and boost the number of old, large trees on the landscape. 

Past management activities and increased fire suppression have combined to leave the forests more densely stocked than ever, Platt explained, which in turn has made them increasingly vulnerable to damage from insects, disease and catastrophic wildfires. 

Since 2001, old-growth trees have decreased in the six forests by about 8%, according to a Forest Service analysis. 

Platt said the issue is exacerbated by larger, younger and more shade-tolerant species, such as grand fir and white fir, that are competing for water and nutrients with older, fire-resilient species, such ponderosa pine and western larch. 

If land managers can remove problematic species where appropriate, Platt said it would help protect more desirable old-growth trees in the future.

"It just gives the manager more options when they're considering what the right thing to do is out there," she said.

Shane Jeffries, forest supervisor on the Ochoco National Forest, said the agency has already approved 24 project-level exceptions to the 21-inch rule since the Eastside Screens were adopted. By establishing a guideline, he said it removes the need for that site-specific process in the future. 

"This is how we think we'll be able to maintain larger and older trees over time, by doing this important work," Jeffries said.

Jeffries and Platt said the Forest Service plans to set up a regional adaptive management work group, with community members that will help oversee how the planning guideline is implemented on the ground.

However, the decision is being met with some opposition from both environmentalist groups and the timber industry.

Rob Klavins, northeast Oregon field coordinator for Oregon Wild, said pivoting from the 21-inch standard to a guideline could be "potentially devastating" to the environment, eliminating large trees that store a disproportionate amount of carbon in the forests. 

On Jan. 13, Oregon Wild and 32 other organizations sent a letter to the incoming Biden administration, asking to stop the Eastside Screens amendment. More than 100 independent scientists have also raised concerns about the decision, the groups argued.

"In recent months we have seen proposals on the ground that clearly demonstrate this amendment would result in controversial, destructive, and widespread logging of large and old trees across the region," the letter states.

Furthermore, Klavins said the public review process for the Eastside Screens amendment was politically driven and rushed, undermining stakeholders' trust in the Forest Service. He said groups are considering all their options going forward, including litigation. 

"I think this is potentially a really huge setback, where we see the old fights about whether or not to log old growth rear their ugly head," Klavins said. "That doesn't benefit anybody." 

Andy Geissler, federal timber program manager for the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry trade group, said that while they supported the Eastside Screens amendment, the Forest Service's actions do not go far enough.

In comments to the agency, the AFRC supported an even more flexible adaptive management alternative that did not include any tree age or size requirements. 

"The agency's own analysis indicated the 'adaptive management' alternative would have provided the best outcomes for late, old structure and our forests," Geissler said. "This is a step in the right direction, but we're disappointed the Forest Service didn't pick the option that best meets their stated objectives."

Geissler said he does not believe amending the 21-inch rule will result in a higher timber output from the six national forests. "There might be, incrementally, certain projects and certain sales might be able to remove a few additional trees," he said.

The federal government owns about 60% of Oregon forestland, yet accounts for just 13% of timber harvest, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

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