PORTLAND — The U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to amend a 25-year-old rule that prohibits logging large trees across six national forests in Central and Eastern Oregon.
Known as the "Eastside screens," the policy was originally adopted in 1995 and included a ban on harvesting any trees with a diameter greater than 21 inches east of the Cascades to protect old-growth forests, water quality and wildlife habitat.
Though the 21-inch standard was supposed to be temporary at the time, it has remained in effect for all or parts of the Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, Malheur, Ochoco, Deschutes and Fremont-Winema national forests, which together add up to nearly 10 million acres of federally owned land.
Forest managers, however, may finally be ready to make changes based on advances in science and a better understanding of the different landscapes.
The Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station issued a report in February, stating that removing some 21-inch-diameter trees — especially those that are large, young and thrive in shade — may actually be desirable for forest restoration goals.
A nine-member interdisciplinary team is now leading the planning effort. The team held a series of virtual workshops May 11, 13 and 15 to gather feedback from partner cities, tribes and agencies, and plans to host additional public hearings later this summer.
Project leaders hope to issue a formalized decision on modifying the Eastside Screens by spring 2021.
At least one timber industry trade group, the American Forest Resource Council, supports amending the rule, calling it flawed, unscientific and outdated and that it stunted forest restoration and accelerated job losses in historically timber-dependent communities.
"It's actually been pretty devastating," said Irene Jerome, a forester and consultant for the AFRC based in John Day, Ore. "We have far fewer mills out here than we used to."
The 21-inch rule was developed as a means of slowing the loss of old-growth trees, which provide numerous benefits to forest health. Not only do they provide fish and wildlife habitat for species such as salmon, nesting birds and mammals, but they are also more resilient to insect outbreaks, disease and wildfire.
To develop the Eastside Screens, tree diameter was used as a surrogate for age. Measuring tree age was slower than measuring size, and guidelines to expedite the process were unavailable at the time, according to the Pacific Northwest Research Station's report.
Twenty-five years later, researchers are finding the rule does have apparent flaws. For example, it does not allow foresters to remove young trees of certain species that may be larger than 21 inches, but do not provide the same benefits and are more prone to burning in massive wildfires.
In its report, the Pacific Northwest Research Station described the 21-inch rule as a "blunt policy instrument" in response to widespread public support for conserving old-growth forests, but does not account for complex forest stands or provide flexibility to make site-specific management decisions.
"Tree diameter alone is an insufficient guide for restoration, and for managing landscapes for resilience to climate change and related stressors," the report states.
Researchers say amendments should take into account factors such as tree species, age, spatial patterns, soil, near- versus long-term threats to tree stands from drought, insects and pathogens.
Andy Geissler, federal timber program director for the AFRC, said amending the Eastside Screens will return management to professional foresters rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all rule, which would open more acres for treatment and increase federal timber supplies.
Since fire suppression became a widespread practice in the early 1900s, Geissler said different species of shade-tolerant trees, like grand fir and white fir, are taking over beneath the canopies of old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, competing for moisture and creating hazardous fuels for larger wildfires.
"The very trees (the Forest Service) was initially trying to save are dying from moisture stress," he said. "It's really all about the Forest Service getting to where they want to be in terms of resiliency and hazardous fuels reduction."