There is local issue that has the potential to have an impact in Oregon’s Umpqua valley. The dramatic effects of the Bureau of land managements (BLM) decision to sell the white castle project on O&C lands to private industry is at the core of this regional and statewide debate. The area is slated for variable retention harvesting, known to some as a form of clear cutting in an area at the headwaters of myrtle creek. “This 77 acre parcel of land has never been logged,”(1) according to Earth First newswire. Although it did burn some years back the area is recovering well. And the issue has sparked a tree sit headed up by the group Cascadia Forest Defenders. This land in a state of rejuvenation could be in a sensitive place on the cusp of returning to a more natural state. Hanging in the balance of the debate is the future of educational revenue in opposition with habitat destruction which makes the issue a double edged sword. In a classic Oregon tale, environmental activists have come in opposition with big timber industry. And it seems for the time being that the lands and its unique qualities and circumstances are pushing the debate in favor of the environmentalists.
The BLM manages 16 million acres public lands in Oregon and 370000 acres in Washington State. They manage these lands fisheries, provide access to mine minerals, deal with wildfire, and wildlife among many other things. The O&C or Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands are managed by the BLM. These lands were established around the time of America’s westward expansion along with the advent of the railroad. Some 130 million acres west of the Mississippi were parceled and issued as land grants to the private companies to promote development in the west. It was in 1855 that the surveyors for the Pacific railway found a route through Oregon and began the process that would generate the great population boom that shaped what we have here today in the Pacific Northwest. Since then the O&C lands have been logged extensively, resulting in the boom many small rural communities in our region. In 1866 Congress established a bunch more land grants and incentives to finish up the railroad section connecting Portland to San Francisco. These incentives had stipulations that they be parceled out in 160 acre chunks and sold for no more than $400 to those qualified to settle the land. But it happened that some of these lands were left unsold. Because the lands were not sold to qualified settlers, congress took back the titles to more than 2 million acres in 1916. Three years later 93,000 acers in the coos bay region were taken back due to similar circumstances.(2) These revested lands are what the Elliot state forest happens to be. And the white castle lands in particular have evaded development while America grew up around them relatively unaffected.
In 1937 the Department of the Interior was put in charge of these revested lands. The parent organization of the Bureau of Land Management, the department of the interior deals will land affairs. When they were classified as timber lands the goal was to have them managed for permanent forest production. The Act also provided for protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities. The public has had a great impact on the management of these lands with a long history of progressive acts of legislation that have saved our forest unlike many areas of the united states today. But in the earlier part of the twentieth century this public concern was raising along with the revelations of the corrupt practices of the railroad companies. The sense that these limitless resources might not be as limitless as once imagined began to develop as the dealings of industry grew unfavorable to the public. And in 1890’s this unrest had come to a head. But out of much political struggle came some of the most intensive land development policies ever to be undertaken. This also was in the era of President Theodore Roosevelt who set aside millions of acres of land as nature reserves. And so now as it has always been the lands that are native forest have been vigilantly watched over. The BLM was formed as a result of President Truman’s decision to combine the General Land Office and the United States Grazing service in 1946. The new management that took over the organization had goals toward managing a sustained yield at a rate that was beneficial to all, and was in line to meet the challenges of the act of 1937. These were a set of very progressive land use policies.
In this act there were three key points that laid out the strategy to keep the lands profitable. The first was to manage the lands for “permanent forest production in conformity with the principal of sustained yield. This means not taking more that the area can generate, but it dosen’t make up the whole picture. Two was to fix allowable cuts of timber, protect watersheads, regulate stream flow, contribute to local economic stability and provide recreational facilities. We always are putting back trees for the next generation, and this is why our progressive land policies have kept a lot of our forests still in a condition that they can produce well, and will continue to do so for future generations providing that we don’t turn away these good intentioned policy decisions. And the third was to distribute receipts to O&C counties and to the federal treasury for O&C land management. The focus on ecology, people and economics are the important things that should be remembered when considering a new cut and its ultimate long term impacts.
The area of the Elliot state forest is slated to be put into production and managed with veritable retention harvesting. This is a practice that has been used throughout the united stated but has not been the predominant form of land management. It is often confused with the more intensive practice of clear cutting, which leaves the land barren of canopy and ground cover. The dictionary of forestry states that,” Variable retention harvesting system is an approach to harvesting based on the retention of structural elements or biological legacies… from the harvested stand for integration into the new stand to achieve various ecological objectives.“(3) The practice involves leaving some standing growth among the cut that is being harvested in either aggregate patches or dispersed evenly throughout the area. This method has been looked at as a viable alternative to complete clear cutting. But in some ways it doesn’t go as far as selective thinning in terms unaltered environment management. There are some conflicting theories about the impact of species in these sites. Some say that by opening up the land you are promoting the growth of the forests by leaving some trees spaced farther apart in order for saplings to grow up in these vacant spots. But there is some contention over the disruptive nature of logging in this manner might still have a destabilizing effect on the watershed by exposing the soil, which leads to more weathering and erosion of the landscape. The effluent and silt from these areas makes its way into streams and rivers downstream having a negative impact on the natural wildlife.
A study was conducted by Iowa state university on the impact that variable retention harvesting might have had on the small rodent population. It measured the mean abundance of each species, total abundance, mean species richness, and mean species diversity of the small mammal communities. The landscape after forest harvesting “ranged from undisturbed habitat to a matrix of disturbed habitat surrounding scattered fragments of original habitat,” as is the case with variable retention harvesting practices. The prediction was that there would be no effect or an increase of population in a non-linear fashion. But in fact the ”Populations of the rodents in terms of, abundance, species richness and diversity of small mammals were maintained on all harvested sites, primarily because of habitat generalist and early successional species. Late-successional forest species such as C. gapperi and the early successional, but mycophagist, T. amoenus persisted on the group seed-tree harvested sites. Our study represents an initial ‘snapshot’ in time (4 years post-harvest) and future monitoring of these sites over many years will determine if these trends continue.”
The effects of Variable Retention may not have a short term impact for some easily adaptable species, but as the case was in the Elliot state forest a few endangered and threatened species such as the marbled murrelet seabird and the spotted owl make all the difference in policy decisions. The finding of these animals on the land has directly resulted in the devaluation of the O&C project land area. In the regions where the birds are found there can be no cutting (for the most part it seems) and as of early this November 2013, the lands value had dropped from 22.1million dollars to 3.6 million now that the bird has been spotted. This has been a huge deterrent for industry due to all eleven sections of the forest that were up for sale contains the threatened species. An injunction filed by a federal judge in November of 2012 has suspended the logging at 11 timber sales in state forests, including Elliott. These species are less adaptable due to population size alone. The logging of this sensitive area would cause devastation for these species nesting grounds and would push them closer to the brink of extinction. So many species are reaching this tipping point at such a rate that on a global scale we are experiencing a major extinction period. This is due in part to projects like this that leave the forest parceled into islands of natural habitat, and disturbed zones. The whole earth it seems is under variable retention extraction, but as the islands of undisturbed habitat are growing smaller and farther apart from their habitat. Making all species less adaptable like the marbled murrelet is in our region.
The watershed of the region flows into the into the myrtle creek watershed and feeds the Umpqua river. The river has resident populations of coho, winter steelhead, cutthroat trout, and the only salmonoids with annual runs. Many other fish have made these waters home although their presence is intermittent and do not reach potential populations. Many warm water fish are found her as well and thought to be introduced through private ponds overflowing into the Umpqua including largemouth/small mouth bass, yellow perch, bluegill brown bullhead and pumpkinseed among others which have also been spotted in the regions waters. There are species that would be affected in the water if the BLM is to undertake logging of the area. The main concern about the practices of logging in a valley with steep valley walls such as this area has, is the large amount of silt and debris that can be displaces into the water. There are 22 tributaries that feed into the myrtle creek watershed. These blockages and runoff can cloud the water, making it good for some but a deterrent to other species. The large amount of debris already in the river is having impacts for salmon. The problem with logging is that it disturbs the soil by breaking up the vegetation that is holding it all together, but the practices of that specific region make the most difference. For instance if helicopters are used to extract the logs, there is an advantages in terms of the reduction of soil erosion due to not having to build roads to drive trucks in and out on. But economically this option is more expensive, so the value of the timber that is extracted is lowered because it is more expensive to extract. Logging trucks might be cheaper in the short term but the effects have long lasting impacts on the region. This is another case in which the balancing of the economic factors and environment seem to come into conflict. Landslides in 1996 have already claimed some property damage. Fears that this project would make these occurrences more frequent and severe have prompted citizen support and action. A pre operations report issued by the state forestry department said that this area is classified as a “high landslide hazard.” Responses to this evaluation could include leaving additional trees in the likely path of flow to slow debris, creating blockages in upper stream regions.
Within the watershed of 76,322 acers, there is an estimated population of 5,542 people, most of the people living within the town of myrtle creek. These people would be the ones to face the effects of the logging. They will gain from the economic boost to their rural town, but it might mean sacrificing their water quality and opportunities in the recreation/tourism industry. Concerns that people have other than the streams could be the implications that this project could have on the local education system. The funds from the timer sales after the payoff of the BLM land grants now funnels into the counties and is used in part to fund k-12 education. This funding constitutes a large percentage of annual revenue for the school district into the common school fund. But alternative sources of funding will need to be identified and discussions are ongoing as to the extent with which the loss of timber revenue from the Elliot state forest will affect the budget.
The group Cascadia Forest Defenders and Cascadia rising tide are heading up the environmental resistance of the Elliot state forest logging of the white castle stand. The group is organized on a grassroots level and is attempting to stop the exploitation of the O&C lands by blockading roads, engaging in non-violent civil disobedience actions, and rallying public support and awareness. Some members of the group have been arrested and charged with trespassing, and obstructing an agricultural project. The protesters in the trees had to be taken down by a boom lift, and removed their blockades removed with a backhoe and crane. There tactics and public awareness on the rise have contributed to the halting of progress in the area. At stake is the forest, water and magic of a never before logged section of Oregon forest. The land has burned before but is recovering naturally. And now due to the efforts of these environmental activists, it will remain wild for the time being.
Sullivan, T. P. and Sullivan, D. S. (2001), Influence of variable retention harvests on forest ecosystems. II. Diversity and population dynamics of small mammals. Journal of Applied Ecology, 38: 1234–1252. doi: 10.1046/j.0021-8901.2001.00674.x