Last week, environmental organizers said they defied a U.S. Forest Service closure in order to block potential logging in the Willamette National Forest. The group has concerns over the impacts of post-fire logging in the region, which was devastated by wildfires in 2020. Daniel Johnson is an organizer with the Cascadia Forest Defenders and joins us with details.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. Last week, environmental organizers said they defied a US Forest Service wildfire closure in order to block potential logging near Breitenbush in the Willamette National Forest. The protesters left after five hours when asked to by law enforcement, but they say they’ll return if logging goes forward. The group Cascadia Forest Defenders is concerned about the impacts of post fire logging in the region, which was burned by wildfires in 2020. They also say that the Forest Service is not following federal law. Daniel Johnson is an organizer with Cascadia Forest Defenders. He joins us with more. Welcome to Think Out Loud.
Daniel Johnson: Thanks Dave, good to be here.
Miller: I want to start with a little bit of history, because in addition to occupying the road to prevent any logging from taking place, you had a teach-in to talk about both the ecology and the history of that particular area. What did you focus on?
Johnson: Yeah, that’s a great question. Of course, we talked a little bit about fire ecology and the way that our forests have evolved with fire over millennia, and discussed also the mosaic patterns of the wildfire that burned at really low severity in much of the proposed area that’s going to be logged. We also talked about the watershed’s really rich history of communities coming together to protect old growth and mature forests from clear cut logging. In particular, we talked about the Easter Massacre in 1989, which a lot of folks credit as really having kicked off the so-called Timber Wars in defense of old growth forests across the Pacific Northwest.
Miller: Can you remind us a little bit about what the Easter Massacre was? Especially for folks who didn’t hear episode one of the OPB podcast series Timber Wars? What happened there?
Johnson: Yeah, absolutely. In ‘89, a number of organizers and community members converged on the North Roaring Devil timber sale, within a mile of where we were last week, to stop logging of an old growth stand of trees, as the courts were hearing arguments against the logging. Eight or nine community members were arrested doing direct action and putting their bodies on the line to stop that logging.
Miller: What lessons did you take from that that you think are most salient, or that were most in your mind just a couple days ago?
Johnson: I think there’s a lot to learn from the Easter Massacre, and from the decades of community resistance against extractive industry and clear cut logging in the region. But I think really, the thing that stands out for me, as a young organizer who’s doing this work, not not as a paid member of a nonprofit, but as someone who just deeply cares about the forests and understands their role and in the future as the climate crisis worsens, is just the immense importance of really taking a stand for what we believe in, what we know is necessary, and being willing to confront extractive industry, and really fight to protect the forests that are so critical to filtering our drinking water, to protecting our communities from high severity wildfire, and for storing carbon from the atmosphere and the ground, mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis. So, to answer your question, I think it’s really that sense of urgency and the real need for all of us, as concerned community members, to take a real stand.
Miller: Let’s zoom forward to just the last couple years. The land that you’re trying to prevent from being logged now, known as the Highway 46 Project, has been the subject of negotiations and compromise for a little while now. Can you describe what kind of logging was agreed to in 2019?
Johnson: After about a two year long settlement process with members of the community, volunteers with different environmental groups, and members of the Breitenbush Hot Springs and Resort, the Forest Service agreed to drop some of the most egregious units proposed for logging, some of those older forests and mature forests, and forest that had been already impacted by wildfire in the recent past. This was two years spent by a number of folks, myself included, volunteers who had gone out surveying, who had spent time on that landscape. And it was a hard decision to reach, but we reached an agreement with the Forest Service, and it felt like a real step forward, building trust with this agency that has historically undermined a lot of our values around protecting the ecology of the area.
And with the 2020 wildfires, it seems like all bets are off the table now. Community members were up in that area and saw a clear cut logging on one of the proposed units that burned in the wildfire that hadn’t been logged prior, because they were in the midst of logging as the wildfires burned through. And it was only then that, through inquiry to the Forest Service, we were able to find out that they had changed the contracts to allow for full scale clear cut logging, and had moved forward with that logging without any additional environmental review or public input. It essentially undermines these two years of negotiations between community members, environmental organizations, and Breitenbush, with the Forest Service.
Miller: We reached out to the Forest Service and they sent us a statement this morning. I’ll read it in full:
“The 2020 Labor Day fires, which on the Willamette National Forest included the Lion’s Head, Beachie Creek, and Holiday Farm fires, created widespread impact to infrastructure, natural resources, special places, and planned projects. Fire recovery from these impacts is taking many forms, and will continue to be a priority for the Willamette National Forest heading into 2022. Matters associated with roadside danger, tree treatments, and the Highway 46 Project are currently under litigation. Although we cannot directly comment on the litigation, we are committed to incorporating court rulings into ongoing and future recovery efforts.”
How much of the units that were authorized for logging back in 2019, after the couple years of negotiations that you and other groups took part in with the forest service, how much of those units were actually logged by the time of the Beachy Creek fire around Labor Day of last year?
Johnson: That’s a good question. And while I’m not super familiar with exactly what was logged and what hasn’t been, just because it’s been extremely hard to access those areas due to different closure orders, from my understanding, much of the, in our minds, lower priority dense timber plantations in the southern portion of the sale have already been logged, and what’s left are large swaths of mature and old growth forest, oftentimes barely even touched by these 2020 wildfires, that are still left to be logged. And now, like I said earlier, they’re moving forward with kind of full force, clear cut logging, under the premise of salvage or post fire logging.
Miller: Is your contention that units were added that weren’t a part of the initial agreement in 2019, or places that were on the list to be logged are now being logged differently?
Johnson: Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both. Units that were dropped in the settlement process have been re-added. And then units that were scheduled for some very light thinning are now looking at full effect clear cutting.
Miller: Nick Smith, a spokesman for the industry group The American Forest Resource Council told the Statesman Journal recently that less than 1% of Oregon’s 2020 burned national forest land had actually been logged. He wrote this in an email to the paper: “Whether by stopping salvage or blocking roadside hazard tree removal, this is all part of an effort to choke the Willamette National Forest in dead and dying trees, which will fuel future wildfires, reduce public lands access, and create more dangerous conditions for firefighters, forest workers, and visitors.” I’m curious about your response to that statement from industry?
Johnson: I think it’s just blatantly, blatantly false. We know these forests have evolved with fire over thousands and thousands of years. And we know that, after the 2020 wildfires, our forests have been devastated not by the fire, but by the disaster capitalists working with the AFRC and other industry groups to push for these wide scale clear cutting projects, whether on private lands, whether it’s the roadside hazard, or its projects like Highway 46.
Science from OSU that not only are our forests some of the most effective in the world, greater than the Amazon rainforest, at drawing down and storing carbon on the landscape, but that logging actually increases wildfire hazard for communities, and especially post-fire logging increases sedimentation, and impacts drinking water that communities rely on. So any notion that there is a necessity for “salvage logging” is purely just industry propaganda to justify what, in our opinion, is probably some of the most wide scale and most impactful logging that our state has seen in decades.
Miller: Your contention is that allowing this post-fire logging to go through without additional public involvement, without National Environmental Policy Act review, and with no public announcement, is in direct violation of federal law. And in fact, that’s what a judge is being asked to consider, and that will be considered in early December. What do you plan to do if a judge doesn’t agree?
Johnson: I think some of our partners with environmental non profits are more inclined to follow these legal pathways. But our community has seen, like I said, unprecedented logging across watersheds throughout the state in the past year, and the cumulative impacts of that logging, along with the increasingly widespread old growth and mature logging that’s taking place on our public lands over the past decade, it’s inexcusable. If the courts won’t uphold the law, then we absolutely will. And we’re willing to do direct action and put our bodies on the line to fight all industrial logging on public lands in the state and in this region.
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