All posts by Kirsten Johnson

The Real Hazard to the Public? Forest Service Logging of Imnaha River Corridor

Guest Blog by Marina Richie (HCPC supporter, La Grande, Oregon)

IMNAHA AFTERNOON THUNDERSTORM

Last week, I drove up to my favorite place, the upper Imnaha River, for two nights of camping among the glorious ancient pines, big firs, and larch.  However, from the junction by Ollokot Campground heading upriver toward Coverdale, Hidden, and Indian Crossing Campgrounds, I saw the aftermath of targeted logging on one of the rarest and most wildlife-important parts of the ancient forests: our huge, standing and stable dead ponderosa pines. The trees may be dead, yet they are filled with life, from nesting white-headed woodpeckers (a sensitive species, declining from loss of old growth ponderosa pine snags) to owls. The trees were solid in the center and could have stood for decades. Many were cut far from the road, and even those within 50 meters posed little risk to travelers. What are the chances of someone driving on that road at the exact moment a tall dead tree (that is decaying at a slower rate than a smaller tree) would then fall on that car? Maybe one in a billion?

I found out the logging had occurred in the aftermath of a winter windstorm that had snapped some trees, triggering the Forest Service to purposefully fell the big, standing wildlife trees. Here’s the part that makes no sense: I saw the windfall trees. Every one of the trees had green needles and none were large diameter trees. In fact, it would have been impossible to predict that those trees would fall down. None of them fell on anything of value, and simply clearing them away would have taken care of the problem.

IMG_7938

One of the “hazard” trees.

 

This logging has gone far beyond the Road 3960 (upper Imnaha) to cutting huge trees, some as large as 40 inches in diameter, along the scenic 39 Road, a popular recreation throughway linking Joseph to Halfway.Instead? The Forest Service has closed the popular Hidden Campground during prime season as it cuts all kinds of trees that pose no threat. They have gone in without any notice to Hells Canyon Preservation Council or any public entity to log the biggest, best wildlife trees—without any documentation. There’s no paper trail, only the evidence now of the felled trees.

And now? A much larger project looms to remove “hazard” trees all along the upper Imnaha River corridor and in both designated campgrounds and primitive campsites next to the Imnaha River—a critical salmon fishery.

From the scoping notice, it’s impossible to know the extent of this project.  It could very well include logging live, green, ancient ponderosa pines, larch, and fir in the very places that people love to visit specifically to view those trees. After they’re cut, would we even want to go there? If we wanted to recreate in logged, second-growth, scarred forests, there are plenty of places, but very very few with centuries-old pines and an intact ecosystem.

I believe I’m not alone in stating I’d rather take a bit of risk and camp among ancient forests and experience their beauty and wildlife.  If the Forest Service needs to show responsibility for safety, then they should follow reasonable guidelines similar to those of the National Park Service (NPS). I read the NPS’s guidelines carefully and saw what was missing from the Forest Service hazard tree removal guide—a true assessment of actual risk of a tree falling, and falling on a person or a property (and including the value of the property).  Before cutting down a tree, there’s a protocol of photography, written documentation, and doing everything possible to keep a rare old growth tree standing.

Although the NPS sees millions of visitors each year, there are a very very few cases of people attempting to sue the agency for a tree falling on a person or personal property. The NPS has won in every case with the judges all agreeing on this point:

“Insofar as an invitee is concerned, the applicable general principle is that the possessor of the property is not an insurer of the invitee’s safety, but must use reasonable care to keep the premises in a reasonably safe condition and warn of any latent or concealed peril.”

(source: https://lawrules.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/if-a-tree-falls-on-me-in-a-national-forest-will-a-court-hear-it/ )

When we head into our national forests, we step into our cars to get there, taking the greatest risk of all. When we’re out recreating on our forests, we then take reasonable precautions. If there’s a big windstorm that comes in suddenly, we move out of the way or leave.  We accept some element of risk in the same way we do when we drive, yet of course the chances of a tree falling and hitting one of us or our vehicle are incredibly low. That risk is likely much higher at home where we have shade trees, whose coolness in summer and beauty we value.

HCPC founding father Brock Evans hugs a great old tree in the corridor.

HCPC founding father Brock Evans hugs a great old tree in the corridor.

Now is the chance to speak up for protecting the rare, big, beautiful old growth trees—living and dead—in the Hells Canyon NRA everywhere, and especially the upper Imnaha River corridor, the best remaining place in the region for easily experiencing an increasingly rare ancient forest.

We are seeing a barrage of felling rare old growth snags along forest roads and campgrounds across eastern Oregon’s national forests. It’s happening right now in your favorite place.

That’s why we need to support the efforts of Hells Canyon Preservation Council more than ever. The staff is working hard on multiple fronts to protect our forests, collaborate, and to take a visionary approach for a future in one of our wildest and most threatened ecosystems in the lower 48 states. They need your help!

We have an opportunity to comment now on the upper Imnaha proposed logging. Please send in your comments today to Sitka Pence, the planner for the Wallowa Mountains District, overseeing part of Hells Canyon NRA.

I urge you not to linger, and to let Sitka know that you want to see the big trees stand, the current cutting to halt, and that any “hazard” tree felling in the future take a reasonable, cautious approach that respects the high value of our rare old growth trees, especially the wildlife snags.  Meanwhile, tell her we want the Forest Service to drop the proposed project entirely and focus on carrying out the true mandate of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act that specifically states:

“…conservation of scenic…values contributing to the public benefit;”

“…preservation…of all features and peculiarities believed to be biologically unique, including but not limited to…rare combinations of…terrestrial habitats and the rare combinations of outstanding and diverse ecosystems and parts of ecosystems associated therewith.”

Here’s what you can do—submit either written comments in the mail, an email, or even a phone call as follows. Every comment will help, no matter how short:

Email comments to sitkapence@fs.fed.us. To submit comments by telephone, or for more information about the project, please contact Sitka Pence (541) 426-5689. Please submit your comments by June 17th, 2016.

You can also visit this link for more details:

http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=49475

HCPC’s Wildlife Watchers

 Our Wildlife Watchers program bridges several important aspects of our conservation mission. We work in partnership with the Forest Service, we connect volunteers with local forests and wildlife, and we provide important wildlife data to the Forest Service to help inform management decisions. If you are interested in becoming a Wildlife Watchers volunteer in 2015, please contact HCPC Restoration Director Brian Kelly at brian@hellscanyon.org.

2014 July 17 Wildlife WatchersThe Wildlife Watchers program tracks wildlife using motion-triggered wildlife trail cameras.  We are particularly interested in finding the American marten (“pine marten”) which is considered a “management indicator species” by the Forest Service.  (Here’s a video of the American marten captured by Dr. Audrey Magoun of The Wolverine Foundation.)  After scouting out a variety of forested areas, we install the cameras in locations showing the best characteristics for marten habitat. To attract martens to the cameras, we apply a smelly, gooey substance known as marten lure.  We also place chicken meat in a cage attached to a tree within view of each camera in hopes of attracting a marten to the area for a meal.  

The 2014 Wildlife Watchers program began on May 19 when HCPC Restoration Director Brian Kelly met with the local Forest Service Wildlife Biologist to coordinate and plan the upcoming field season of work.   Our overall strategy is to assist the Forest Service wildlife staff and their efforts to collect wildlife data in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon.

As the snow melted and the roads became accessible, we installed three cameras on June 12, 2014.  The cameras were installed in forests with high canopy-cover and down logs.  These forest stands tend to represent the best examples of aspects of old forest conditions that are available within a targeted geographic area.  These forests have the potential to be designated as valuable wildlife habitat.  Grand fir, western larch, Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir are the types of trees most commonly found in the forests where we installed the cameras in 2014.

2014 July 17 Wildlife WatchersWe serviced the cameras every two weeks.  This involved installing new bait and marten lure, swapping camera memory cards, downloading photos and checking the photos for wildlife species.  HCPC staff coordinated volunteers, purchased supplies, and communicated with Forest Service staff.  Nine field trip visits to the cameras were completed in 2014. We retrieved the cameras on October 20 shortly before the first snows of the season threatened to block access.  Seven volunteers participated in the Wildlife Watchers Program in 2014.

We are excited to report that in 2014 we succeeded in capturing a photo of an American marten. As a Forest Service ‘management indicator species’, this supports the need for protection of old growth forests and wildlife connectivity corridors.  Other interesting photos include cougar, bear, coyote, deer, flying squirrel, red squirrel, snowshoe hare, Steller’s jay, gray jay, and Rocky Mountain elk.

Coyote Bear

Notably, we consistently captured many photos of elk throughout the season at each of the three cameras.  Numerous photos of bulls, cows and calves were obtained.  One photo contained at least six elk within a single frame.  Elk are an important signature animal of the Blue Mountains and they are of great significance to the local ecosystems.

2014 July 17 Wildlife WatchersData collected through the Wildlife Watchers Program is provided to the Forest Service and it is used to help inform wildlife-related aspects of public lands management.

2014 was the fourth successful season for the Wildlife Watchers program.  Through the Wildlife Watchers program, HCPC has developed a positive cooperative relationship with the Forest Service and has provided an opportunity for volunteers to lend a hand while getting out into the local National Forest lands. 

Hells Canyon Preservation Council appreciates the efforts of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and of the HCPC volunteers who make this program possible.  We would also like to thank our funding partners— the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Cross Charitable Foundation, Jubitz Family Foundation, Mazamas, Patagonia, Wilburforce Foundation, and the Wildhorse Foundation.  Thank you!