Conservation groups sue feds to protect old-growth forests
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Six environmental groups sued officials of the Biden administration Tuesday, saying a Trump-era rule change that allowed logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest violates federal laws and was politically motivated.
“Large and old trees have outsized ecological and social importance. They provide critical ecosystem functions such as storing carbon, providing wildlife habitat, and maintaining water quality,” the groups said in their lawsuit.
The Trump administration amended a protection that had been in place since 1994 that prohibited the harvesting of trees 21 inches (53 centimeters) or greater in diameter and instead emphasized maintaining a combination of trees, with trees at least 150 years old prioritized for protection and favoring fire-tolerant species.
The area the rule covers is at least 7 million acres, roughly the size of the state of Maryland, on six national forests in eastern Oregon and southeast Washington state, east of the Cascade Range.
In announcing the decision to amend the old-growth protection, which took effect on Jan. 15, 2021, the Trump administration said it would make forests “more resistant and resilient to disturbances like wildfire.”
Ochoco National Forest supervisor Shane Jeffries said the 21-inch rule made it difficult to remove fire-prone species without a lengthy regulatory process.
“We’re looking to create landscapes that withstand and recover more quickly from wildfire, drought and other disturbances,” Jeffries told Oregon Public broadcasting at the time. “We’re not looking to take every grand fir and white fir out of the forests.”
But the lawsuit said the government's environmental assessment did not adequately address scientific uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of thinning, especially thinning large trees, for fire risk reduction. The groups said the thinning and logging of large trees “can actually increase fire severity.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Medford, Oregon, said there's overwhelming evidence that large trees play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change and that there is a lack of those trees in Eastern Oregon after "more than a century of high-grade logging.”
The U.S. Forest Service said it doesn't comment on pending or active lawsuits.
The complaint alleges that the government's decision violated the National Environmental Protection Act and National Forest Management Act.
Plaintiffs are the Greater Hells Canyon Council, Oregon Wild, Central Oregon LandWatch, the Sierra Club, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The groups also notified the defendants of their intent to sue over alleged violations of Endangered Species Act protections for fish and wildlife that depend on older forests. They said the amended policy “opens up the potential for large tree logging across the landscape, including in riparian areas designated as Riparian Habitat Conservation Areas.”
They said the amendment would impact threatened or endangered fish species such as bull trout, steelhead, three types of sucker fish, and chinook and sockeye salmon.