LOWER JOSEPH CREEK — When the U.S. Forest Service first unveiled the 98,000-acre Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project in 2012, it was hugely controversial. Lawsuits and regulations stopped it in its tracks.

Now, after nearly eight years of planning, discussion and contention, timber/thinning sales are again moving forward on the nearly decade-old project, this time with more support from both sides.

Six timber sales have been laid out — Lupine, KB, Broady, Sumac, Starvation, and Cottonwood Together — encompassing 11,500 acres, less than 12% of the 98,000-acre Lower Joseph Creek Restoration project. But only one, the Lupine sale of about 1,000 acres, according to Wallowa Mountain District Ranger Kris Stein, will go on the block later this summer.

“We don’t have the capacity to offer more than one sale at a time out there,” said Stein. “But we absolutely want to see the Lupine sale move forward.”

The first offering of the LoJo sale in the fall of 2019 produced no bids, Stein said. Bill Higgins, director of business development for the Idaho Forest Group, said that the USFS-sale areas “did not pencil out.”

He and other foresters gave reasons that included short stretches of road building and upgrades, a long haul to get logs to mills, low ratio of timber logs to small diameter, low value “fiber” logs, an alleged USFS overestimate of the amount of merchantable timber in the sale area and other factors. Higgins said that had his company bought the previously advertised sale, they would likely have lost about $400,000 on it.

The Forest Service is hoping that the newly designed sales, which are “scaled sales” based upon the amount of timber actually harvested, rather than the Forest Service’s cruised-volume estimate, will be more financially attractive, said Oregon Department of Forestry Forester Mike Billman, who worked with the Forest Service on planning the sale.

The project is primarily focused on thinning a forest that has been impacted by fire exclusion, explosive growth of young “ladder-fuel trees, death of many grand fir due to a bark beetle ... and other concerns,” USFS silviculturalist Clint Foster said.

The USFS Record of Decision on the Lower Joseph Creek Restoration Project notes that 90,000 acres of the entire 98,000-acre project are eligible for post-treatment prescribed burns. A total of 15,600 acres is planned for eventual tree thinning, and of that, the 11,500 acres are planned for commercial harvest combined with thinning. Most harvest sites within sales are 40 acres or less in area. All trees greater than 21 inches in diameter will be retained, as will all trees estimated at greater than 150 years old and all snags.

The record of decision specifies that thinning throughout the 11,500-acre harvest units will emphasize grand fir and Douglas fir, but not eliminate the species from the sites, leaving trees 21 inches and larger. Thinning will also emphasize leaving healthy trees of all age classes within a stand, and when selecting clumps of trees to leave, retaining the healthiest of those.

Individual sale prescriptions, including that of Lupine, specify that along grassland–forest edges, logging and thinning would restore presettlement density and patterns, with uneven, gradational edges for cut areas. Logging plans emphasize leaving older, more fire-resistant trees in these edge areas. Specific harvest prescriptions vary according the needs of each sale area.

One of the sticking points in the LoJo sales has been the adherence to the 21-inch rule for all trees, according to Pam Hardy of the Western Environmental law Center and Veronica Warnock of the Greater Hells Canyon Council. Many timber industry and consulting silviculturalists would like to remove grand fir of all size classes from the sites, including those over 21 inches according to Billman. Many would also like to remove much of the Douglas fir throughout dry forest sites that were once almost exclusively Ponderosa pine and tamarack when fires controlled the forest understory.

The rationale for removing the large grand fir and Douglas fir includes their long-term capacity for reseeding more shade-tolerant young trees that would become ladder fuels and tinder for fire in the future, according to both Billman and Higgins.

“If you don’t take out the big grand fir, you’ll come back in 20 years and it will look the same as it does now,” Higgins said.

Some environmental groups, notably the Center for Environmental Law, support the position. Others, including the Greater Hells Canyon Council and Oregon Wild, adamantly want 21-inch trees of all species to remain. This has been among the most contentious issues on the LoJo project.

The two animals of most concern in the LoJo are goshawk and pine marten, said Foster. For goshawks, that means retaining multiple ages and classes of trees, as well and leaving snags and large downed logs. In areas designated for pine martens, the prescriptions require that the forest canopy cover at least 60% of the area.

On-the-ground observations: the field trip

A field trip last month took about two-dozen foresters, environmentalists, timber company representatives and Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee members on a timber sale tour. The trip was sponsored and co-led by the Forest Service and Irene Jerome of the American Forest Resource Council, an industry group that advocates for sustainable forestry. Wallowa County officials were invited, but were unable to join the group.

The trip to the area, about a two-hour drive north of Enterprise, explored three locations in the Lupine sale area.

The dry-forest site of old-growth Ponderosa pines showcased an incoming fuel load of young grand fir and Douglas fir. The prescription, as Foster pointed out, called for the creation of 2-acre open patches, leaving larger trees in clumps of 2 to 15 pines or other species and removing most smaller trees, especially grand fir, as “fiber” that would go to wood-pulp (paper) mills.

The principal concern among the group at the dry forest site focused on the complexity of tree marking and consequent challenges for loggers to be sure they followed the Forest Service harvest plan. Orange or white slashes marked the “leave trees.” But specifically which trees would be harvested or thinned was not designated.

“It would be easier if you just marked the trees you wanted cut,” Higgins said.

This dry site overlooked the canyon of Joseph Creek and its tributaries.

“Riparian buffers throughout most of the sale area need to be only 50 feet in width. Virtually all of the streams in the timber sale units are narrow, with only intermittent seasonal flow,” Foster said.

However, both Warnock and Hardy said that even small streams contribute significantly to water quality and quantity in Joseph Creek, which remains a concern for their groups.

The two moist forest sites included areas with sizeable grand fir that have died during the last 8 years or so due to bark beetles and drought stress. A dog-hair understory of young grand fir formed a forest understory. Ground vegetation was virtually absent. At both sites, 21 inches and larger grand fir bore the honorable white slashes that designated them as “leave” trees larger than 21 inches.

“When the project was first planned, and we did the resource inventory, a lot of these dead trees were still alive,” said retired OSU Extension agent John Williams. “So the value of the timber in this sale has decreased quite a bit.”

Others, including Billman expressed concern that the dead trees were now snags that would have to be left standing and would present a hazard for loggers. USFS Forester Brian Goff said that the forest was effectively “self-thinning” as less robust grand fir succumbed to Scolytus beetles, drought, and competition with other trees.

The living grandmother trees were the subject of intense concern.

“If you leave the big grand fir and come back in 20 years, you’ll have the same thing as this all over again,” Higgins said.

Foster said that the reintroduction of fire through controlled burns over 90,000 acres would eliminate the regrowth.

“Once the multiple 40-acre patches are harvested and thinned, the Forest Service will be reintroducing fire via controlled burns,” he said. “Just like it did in the past, fire will significantly reduce the new growth of grand fir and begin to restore historic forest conditions.”

But the small, 40-acre size of the harvest areas was also controversial.

“If you are trying to make harvests mimic the size and effect of natural fires, that size would be closer to 320 acres than 40 acres,” Higgins said.

Will the second time be the charm for timber and thinning in the Lower Joseph Resource Management area?

“There’s a better chance this time,” Billman said. “The Forest Service has changed to a scaled system, so the previous concern about having to pay for more timber than you actually harvest is off the table. We’ll just have to wait a few weeks and find out.”

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