Blue Mountains

The Wallowa Whitman and Umatilla national forests will receive $2.7 million to improve forest resiliency, reduce long-term costs of fire management and improve watershed conditions across Northeast Oregon and Southeast Washington.

BEND — A rule change under review by the U.S. Forest Service could end a long-standing provision that prevents the harvest of trees greater than 21 inches in diameter on six national forests in Eastern Oregon and Washington.

The limitation on harvesting trees of that size was put in place 25 years ago under a land-management plan amendment known as the Eastside Screens. At the time the Eastside Screens were established as a suite of temporary land management provisions designed to protect water resources and wildlife habitats.

Land managers needed to take into account, or screen, the provisions before moving forward with management activities such as timber harvests.

What’s under consideration is revising just one provision of the Eastside Screens — the limit on cutting trees larger than 21 inches in diameter, also known as the 21-inch rule.

The 21-inch rule has come under scrutiny by the Forest Service because of overcrowded stands of trees that are now deemed a wildfire hazard. The proposal to remove the rule would give managers more flexibility when designing projects, especially landscape forest restoration treatments, said Stephen Baker, regional media officer for Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest region.

“Each of these projects is unique but in a place like Central Oregon, the goal would be to protect and help more fire-resistant species like ponderosa pine by removing some younger, faster-growing but less fire-resistant species that may be encroaching on or outcompeting species like ponderosa pine,” Baker said.

Grand fir and white fir are examples of shade-tolerant species that are less resistant to fire. By contrast, ponderosa pines develop thick bark that helps them withstand wildfires. Grand and white firs are more prevalent now compared to centuries past due to wildfire suppression by humans.

In many areas large, young conifers, especially shade-tolerant firs, have grown larger than 21 inches in diameter and are “out-competing” more fire-adapted species such as ponderosa pines. They grow faster than ponderosas and such growth can lead to an unhealthy forest that is more prone to wildfire.

“What land managers are trying to do is encourage a healthy mix of tree composition and density that can help forests better withstand and recover from disturbances like wildfire and drought,” Baker said. “Removal of some trees larger than 21 inches, especially large, young, shade-tolerant species, may at times be desirable as part of a larger forest restoration process.”

Wildfire suppression and past management activities in the Pacific Northwest have led to forests whose composition and density put them at greater risk from wildfire, insects and disease than they were historically, said Baker.

“The Forest Service is considering science that has emerged over the last 25 years to see if there is a more contemporary way to achieve the wildlife and other restoration objectives,” said Baker.

“Adjusting the 21-inch limitation to reflect learning over the past 25 years would help streamline restoration of forests in eastern Oregon and make it easier to create landscapes that withstand and recover more quickly from wildfire, drought, and other disturbances,” he said.

The proposed amendment to the Eastside Screens would apply to the Deschutes, Fremont-Winema, Malheur, Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman National Forests.

The decision to consider amending the Eastside Screens is not new. The Forest Service has been meeting with collaborative groups and partners on the issue for decades, said Baker.

“Increasing fire size, longer fire seasons, and more interest from states and other partners make this a timely issue right now,” said Baker.

Virtual public engagements this summer are likely to be scheduled within a month, he said.

Loggers, trucking companies, and wood manufacturers stand to benefit from a decision to remove the ban, as it would result in more work in national forests.

The American Forest Resource Council, which represents logging interests, has shown its support for removing the ban.

“We need a policy that empowers professional foresters to implement needed treatments that address a changing climate, drought, fire, disease, and other threats to forest health,” said Nick Smith, a spokesperson for AFRC. “Improving forest management would also provide some stability for the region’s forest infrastructure and timber-dependent communities.”

The proposed plan does have its critics. Erik Fernandez, program director for Oregon Wild, says the decision is being pushed by the Trump administration in order to weaken environmental safeguards “in the middle of a pandemic.”

“For the Trump administration, this has little to do with fire, that’s just their talking point to hide behind. It’s about paying back favors to logging execs that want to be able to cut bigger, more profitable, trees on public lands,” said Fernandez. “Does anyone actually believe the Trump administration will actually use science at the end of the day for this decision?”

A formal decision on whether or not to make the change is expected by the spring of 2021.

Changing the Eastside Screens requires a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the potential environmental effects. The analysis is expected to be published this summer said Baker, and will include a public comment period.

Members of the public can share their opinion of the potential change with the Forest Service by emailing: SM.FS.EScreens21@usda.gov.

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