By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The Wallowa-Whitman National Forest's timber sale program has crashed with a resounding thud.
A lawsuit that has delayed two sales, and discussions within the agency regarding a third, have combined to help slash the sale of timber on the Wallowa-Whitman to an all-time low.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Wallowa-Whitman, at 2.3 million acres Oregon's largest national forest, offered for sale 16 million board-feet of timber.
The previous low point was fiscal 1993, when the forest offered 23 million board-feet, said Carla Monismith, the Wallowa-Whitman's timber sale officer.
The forest's annual average for the past decade was slightly less than 42 million board-feet.
The Wallowa-Whitman's average during the 1980s was almost 196 million board-feet per year.
Since then a mixture of appeals and lawsuits, the addition of Snake River salmon runs to the endangered species list, and a shift in the Forest Service's overall mission away from harvesting trees and toward protecting wildlife habitat, has drastically reduced the amount of logging on the Wallowa-Whitman.
The heavier cutting of previous decades also reduced the amount of mature ponderosa pine trees still standing.
Monismith said the Forest Service's regional office in Portland assigned the Wallowa-Whitman a target of 27.2 million board-feet for the previous fiscal year.
The forest was on track to exceed that goal until three sales were derailed, she said.
All three are on the La Grande Ranger District.
Two, called Sandy Bottle and Little Bear, are the subject of a lawsuit filed by the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Oregon Natural Resources Council, Monismith said.
The plaintiffs believe those timber sales are in areas that serve as habitat for the threatened Canada lynx, said Brett Brownscombe, conservation direction for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
Although there is no proof that lynx actually live on the Wallowa-Whitman, the Endangered Species Act requires the forest to protect areas the elusive cats might use if they either pass through or establish home ranges here.
Brownscombe said the plaintiffs contend the Wallowa-Whitman has failed to adequately protect lynx habitat, and that the two timber sales are examples of that failure.
But Monismith said Wallowa-Whitman officials disagree, saying that none of the areas where logging is proposed is in potential lynx habitat.
The final hearing in the case took place last week, and Monismith said she expects the judge to issue a decision on the lawsuit within a month.
Sandy Bottle and Little Bear include about 7.5 million board-feet of timber, Monismith said.
The third sale, called Sprinkle, totals about 5.4 million board-feet.
Wallowa-Whitman officials intended to sell Sprinkle during the previous fiscal year, but the project has been delayed while officials review the proposed contract for the sale, Monismith said.
A new type of timber sale
Sparkle represents a new type of timber sale the Forest Service has experimented with over the past few years.
Rather than simply sell timber to a logging company or a mill, the forest in a few cases has paid a contractor to remove trees from overcrowded forests, partially offsetting the cost with the value of trees large enough to be milled.
Had the Wallowa-Whitman offered all three sales on schedule, the fiscal year total would have been almost 30 million board-feet, slightly higher than the target, Monismith said.
Forest officials hope to offer all three delayed sales during this fiscal year, she said. That trio, combined with a planned salvage sale of timber killed during this summer's Monument fire south of Unity, could boost the Wallowa-Whitman's total to 30 to 35 million board-feet, she said.
The regional office has not assigned the Wallowa-Whitman a target for the current fiscal year because Congress has yet to approve the spending bill that includes the Forest Service's budget, Monismith said.
Although last fiscal year's total set a new low for the Wallowa-Whitman, the decline in volume was not as dramatic as the plunge of the early 1990s.
Timber volumes plummeted from 210 million board-feet in fiscal 1990, to 53 million board-feet a year later.
Not since 1992, the year the first salmon runs were listed, has the Wallowa-Whitman offered more than 75 million board-feet of timber in a single fiscal year.
And five times during that span, the annual total was 35 million board-feet or less.
Monismith expects similar numbers for the foreseeable future.
The reason, she said, is that Wallowa-Whitman officials are planning the same sorts of timber sales that have dominated the forest's program over the past decade sales that produce much less timber than the ones common during the 1970s and '80s.
The Forest Service calls such sales andquot;commercial thins.andquot;
In general, they involve cutting some of the trees in second-growth forests that the agency's employees believe are overcrowded.
Unlike past timber sales, in which loggers focused on the biggest, most valuable trees, commercial thins involve considerably smaller trees.
And that results in timber sales with comparatively small volumes.
For example, last year the Wallowa-Whitman's largest project, the Goose sale on the Pine Ranger District, totaled 3.3 million board-feet.
During the 1970s and '80s, individual timber sales sometimes totaled 10 to 15 million board-feet, Monismith said.
andquot;When the average diameter is close to eight inches, it takes a lot of trees just to make 2 million board-feet,andquot; Monismith said.
Raw timber volumes tell only part of the story, however.
A couple of other statistics vividly illustrate how logging has changed on the Wallowa-Whitman over the past decade or so.
In 1990, timber sales on the forest were smaller in area an average of 300 acres per sale compared with about 1,500 now, Monismith said.
Even more striking is the number of trees cut per acre.
In 1990, loggers removed an average of 20 to 40 trees per acre, most of them large, mature trees that produced a lot of board-feet of lumber 200 board-feet per tree, on average.
Today loggers cut 80 to 150 trees per acre, but because those trees are akin to toothpicks compared with the old-growth pines of the past, timber sale volumes have declined even as the number of trees cut has risen.
The average tree cut in a commercial thin can be sawed into just 50 board-feet of lumber.