By Jayson Jacoby
The first in a series of five large timber sales planned on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in eastern Baker County is slated to be offered to mills this summer.
A local environmental group, meanwhile, is considering whether to go to court to challenge the Snow Basin project, which is also designed to reduce the risk of wildfires on 28,500 acres in the southern Wallowa Mountains.
"We are looking at our options," said David Mildrexler, ecosystem conservation coordinator for the Hells Canyon Preservation Council (HCPC) in La Grande.
HCPC appealed Wallowa-Whitman Supervisor Monica Schwalbach's approval of the Snow Basin project in late March.
The two parties weren't able to resolve that appeal.
The sticking point is 691 acres where the Wallowa-Whitman is proposing to allow logging, Mildrexler said.
Those areas have what's known as a "multi-story late and old structure" forest.
These old-growth forests include three age classes of trees, with grand firs being the predominant species.
The Wallowa-Whitman wants to cut most of the firs, leaving a single age class of ponderosa pines and western larches (tamaracks), a situation officials say more closely resembles the old-growth forests that existed before logging and fire suppression started more than a century ago.
Removing the grand firs, which compete for water and soil nutrients, will invigorate the remaining pines and tamaracks, allowing them to grow faster, according to the Wallowa-Whitman.
But Mildrexler said his organization thinks those 691 acres should be excluded from timber sales because some animals rely on multi-story forests, and because those forests are less susceptible to fire.
"Sadly, very little old-growth forest remains anywhere in Oregon, and these 691 acres of rare multi-story old-growth forest needs to be preserved," Mildrexler said.
He said HCPC would have withdrawn its appeal, and not considered a lawsuit, had the Wallowa-Whitman agreed not to log the 691 acres.
HCPC is not contesting proposed logging on 10,000 acres elsewhere in the Snow Basin project.
"There's a lot of common ground here," Mildrexler said. "We thought we were close to a compromise. It's unfortunate."
Wallowa-Whitman officials have been planning Snow Basin and its associated timber sales for several years.
The project is especially noteworthy in two respects.
First, the five proposed timber sales could produce a total of between 35 million board-feet and 50 million board-feet of timber.
The latter figure is more timber than the entire Wallowa-Whitman has offered for sale in a single year for the past two decades.
Second, some of that timber would come from live trees larger than 21 inches in diameter (measured at what's known as "breast high," about 4? feet above the ground).
This aspect of Snow Basin, along with the aforementioned conversion of multi-story forests into single age class forests, prompted criticism from HCPC and environmental groups.
They urge the Wallowa-Whitman to continue to comply with the so-called "Eastside Screens" - a policy dating to the early 1990s in which the Forest Service agreed to cease cutting live trees bigger than 21 inches in diameter in national forests east of the Cascades in Oregon.
Environmental groups contend that the 21-inch logging limit is necessary to preserve the relatively small percentage of older trees.
But Wallowa-Whitman officials, in the environmental impact statement (EIS) for Snow Basin, say the issue is not only the size of the trees in question, but also the species.
Forest officials say grand firs, which have been protected from fire by the agency's own aggressive firefighting campaign, have encroached on areas where for millennia ponderosa pines and tamaracks predominated.
The problem with grand firs, according to the Wallowa-Whitman, is that they're more susceptible to insects, disease and fire than the pines and tamaracks.
Moreover, the firs are contributing to the demise of native aspen groves by casting shade over the sun-loving aspens.
Although Wallowa-Whitman officials intend to cut some trees larger than 21 inches, no trees older than 150 years, regardless of species, will be felled, according to the EIS.
As for 21-inch-plus trees that are marked for cutting, most will be grand firs.
However, Douglas-fir trees of that size could be cut "where there is excessive mistletoe infestation," according to the EIS, or "where large trees of other species are affecting the health and vigor of aspen stands."
Besides logging, the Snow Basin project includes precommercial thinning (cutting trees too small to sell to mills) and prescribed burning on thousands of acres.
According to the EIS, several of the precommercial thinning areas will be set aside for firewood cutting.
More information about the Snow Basin project, including the complete EIS, is available online at www.fs.usda.gov/projects/wallowa-whitman/landmanagement/projects.