The Bureau of Land Management recently approved a controversial forest management project in southwestern Oregon. The plan, called the “Late Mungers” project, includes roughly 7,500 acres of prescribed burning and tree thinning, as well as 830 acres of logging. It’s one of the first projects approved under the BLM’s Integrated Vegetation Management plan, which the agency says will allow it to increase the “scope, scale and pace” of its wildfire prevention efforts.
But as Jefferson Public Radio has reported, the plan has faced significant backlash from environmental groups in the region. They argue that the accelerated project timeline cuts out opportunities for public comment, and that the timber sales included in the project will actually increase fire risks and endanger wildlife.
For more details about the plan, we’re joined by BLM Medford District Manager Elizabeth Burghard and Luke Ruediger, conservation director for the Klamath Forest Alliance and executive director of the Applegate-Siskiyou Alliance.
Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Bureau of Land Management recently approved a forest management project near Williams in Southwest Oregon. It’s called the “Late Mungers” project. It includes close to 7,500 acres of prescribed burning and tree thinning as well as about 800 acres of commercial logging. It’s one of the first projects approved under the BLM’s Integrated Vegetation Management plan which the agency says will allow it to increase the “scope, scale and pace” of its wildfire prevention efforts. The plan has also generated some backlash for that sped up process and for the details of the proposal itself. We’re going to hear from both sides starting with the federal agency. Elizabeth Burghard is the manager of the BLM’s Medford District and she joins us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.
Elizabeth Burghard: Thank you so much for the opportunity.
Miller: I want to start with the big picture. What in your view are the biggest threats to Southwestern Oregon’s forests right now?
Burghard: From where I sit, the biggest threats that we have towards Southwest Oregon’s forests are really the impacts of climate change on our forests. We are seeing a severe die off of our Douglas fir species across the forest. We’re seeing severe impacts of drought and we’re seeing increasing intensity of wildland fire. So all of those things combined are really pointing to a forest health crisis.
Miller: The project that was approved recently is an example of the BLM’s new Integrated Vegetation Management plan. What is IVM and how is it different from previous ways to manage forests?
Burghard: Well, integrated vegetation management is really a suite of tools that we have evaluated and we have used for decades. We actually had integrated vegetation management leading up to now, these are not the first projects that we’ve done, but essentially, it’s using the right tool in the right spot to achieve the outcomes that we need in terms of forest resiliency and forest health. So for example, you mentioned the Late Mungers project as a combination of prescribed burning, small diameter thinning and then also commercial actions in order to basically reset those historic forest conditions that we desire. What we see is, as a result of fire suppression for more than a century, we have overstocked forests throughout Southwest Oregon. That increased competition for water, for light, for nutrients from the soil, is creating a weakened state for our trees within the forest and we need to do something about it in order to reset the balance of those conditions for the future.
Miller: One of the chief complaints from environmental groups is that because of the accelerated paced timeline for this Integrated Vegetation Management plan system, they say there aren’t as many opportunities for them to comment on the plan while it’s being created and drafted. How do you respond to that basic criticism?
Burghard: I would beg to differ with that assessment of our public outreach and engagement process. The Bureau of Land Management incorporates public involvement into any planning effort that we undertake and we have basically a tiered process. We start with a resource management planning process. We had a resource management plan approved in 2016. There were 41 public meetings that preceded development of that resource management plan. From there, we started looking at the integrated vegetation management planning process. That was a three year effort in doing our environmental assessment for that. In that process, we did public meetings at every stage. We sought public comment, comment at every stage. We sought additional public comments, that were not necessarily required, to get people’s feedback and we made changes to our projects as a result of that. For example, we excluded a lot of our special designated areas such as lands with wilderness characteristics. We excluded the Cascades-Siskiyou National Monument. We also incorporated future public involvement into the decision for how we move forward.
Then finally, what our process did with the Late Mungers project was we did a public webinar to help people better understand the project. We did a public field trip, we did a 60 day comment period, extended that in response to the public’s request. And now we have spent nine months evaluating the comments that we received from the public before moving forward.
So when I hear that there is a lack of public involvement or public engagement, I understand that people may not necessarily be thrilled with the outcome. We received a variety of feedback. We received feedback ranging from, “don’t do anything, just let nature take its course,” to feedback of “do a lot more commercial logging in that area because that’s what those lands are for,” from some members of the public. So thinking about that range, we need to move forward thinking about what’s going to accomplish our objectives of forest health and fire resiliency for the future.
Miller: Well, I want to give you a chance to directly respond to the other big criticism that I’ve seen, which is that this plan isn’t going to achieve its intended goals. Specifically, opponents say that large old trees up to 40 inches in diameter have been authorized for logging, that significant canopy removal is proposed and they say it’s going to have the opposite impact of your goals, increasing fire risks and degrading important old forest habitat. What’s your response?
Burghard: Well, the first thing I would like to correct is that number of the large old trees up to 40″ in diameter. Our project, we have notified people who have inquired that the upper limit of any tree that would be cut in this project would be 36 inches. We have designed this project to protect our largest oldest legacy trees. So that is, I guess the first thing that I do want to correct.
One of the things I hear about the project that I don’t think is a fair characterization or an accurate characterization is that we are doing clear cuts on the landscape and that is just not the case either. We are basically taking competing trees that are overstocked and are going to outcompete our legacy trees, removing them to give our legacy trees space to grow.
Miller: Elizabeth Burghard, thanks very much for joining us.
Burghard: Thank you.
Miller: Elizabeth Burghard is the manager for the BLM’s Medford District. We’re gonna get another perspective on the agency’s Late Mungers Forest Management proposal in Southwest Oregon.
Right now, I’m joined by Luke Ruediger. He is conservation director for the Klamath Forest Alliance and the Executive Director of the Applegate-Siskiyou Alliance. Luke Ruediger, thanks very much for joining us.
Luke Ruediger: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Do you support any aspects of this Late Munger plan?
Ruediger: Well, I think one thing that’s really important to note is that a lot of people really have a lot of concerns about specific components of the Late Mungers project and the IVM project. And there’s also a lot of concerns about the procedural, the process that’s facilitating or in our opinion, not facilitating, appropriate levels of public involvement.
Miller: We can then zero in on the public involvement first. Since you just mentioned that. Obviously, you heard me ask that question to Elizabeth Burghard. She outlined what she saw as years of opportunities and realities of public engagement in terms of public meetings and public input at various stages of this process, going back at least to 2016. What’s your response?
Ruediger: Well, the IVM project has an over 800,000 acre planning area and a proposed treatment area of over 680,000 acres, which consists of the vast majority of Medford District BLM lands. Now, what the IVM does is allows the BLM to begin implementing projects within that 680,000 acre area without site specific environmental review, without the disclosure of environmental impacts and without numerous public involvement opportunities that have always been required for these types of logging projects on public lands and for the types of projects that they’re proposing with the level of impact that they’re proposing.
So what we’re seeing is that, for instance, in the Late Mungers project, the BLM was marking trees and laying out timber sale units, essentially bordering people’s properties there in Williams. And when the community started asking the BLM, “Hey, can we get some information on what’s going on out there? Can we get maps of the logging units? Could you tell us which units are marked for logging so that we can go out and review those areas?” The response that we got was that no, they were not going to provide that information. They were going to fully design, they were going to plan and they were going to fully mark the timber sale before providing an opportunity for the public to have any input. And when they told the community that’s how they were going to deal with this project, they were citing the provisions in the IVM saying that we are not required to provide you with any information until the decisions have essentially already been made.
And then they offer a comment period after every tree in the timber sale was marked, after every timber sale unit was identified and marked on the ground. And a lot of people feel that that just does not provide much opportunity, at that point, for the public to have much influence. And in fact, when you look at the decision that was made in the Late Mungers project, there is nothing that reflects that public involvement and those public concerns in the final decision record.
Miller: I want to turn to the timber sale aspect of this as well, because my understanding is that’s where your groups have the biggest issues. What exactly are you saying is wrong with the BLM’s plan in terms of which trees are going to be cut and where those trees are?
Ruediger: Well, I would start out by saying that, one of the things that’s really ironic about this project is that the BLM has a harvest land base that they have identified for timber production and then they have late successional reserve forests that were designated for the protection of Northern Spotted Owl habitat. And this project is focused on logging those late successional reserves. And you heard Elizabeth say that they have stated a 36 inch diameter limit, but personally, I have walked almost every timber sale unit proposed in the Late Mungers project in both the Penn Butte and Late Mungers timber sale. And we are certainly finding trees up to 42 and 44 inches in diameter identified for removal within those areas. And when we brought those two concerns to the BLM, there’s been essentially no response.
So there are absolutely trees over the stated diameter limit marked for removal in the Late Mungers and Penn Butte Timber Sales and those trees are up to 44 inches in diameter, which clearly is not a concern from a fire management perspective. It’s not 44 inch diameter trees that are fueling wildfires, in the intensity of wildfires. It’s a lot of those small diameter, fine fuels, close to the forest floor. And our concern is that the BLM is going to be really removing quite a few large trees. They’re going to be opening up that forest canopy quite a bit and they’re gonna be implementing what they call group selection logging, which we do believe as a form of clear cut logging. What it does is it targets mature forest stands and it cuts four acre clear cuts, openings where every tree is removed, within those areas. And it does that about between 20 and 30% of the of the unit, 20% of the unit if it’s an LSR forest and 30% if it’s in other land use allocations. So in the late successional reserve designated for Northern Spotted Owl habitat, what you’ll see is this patchwork of clear cuts, four acre clear cuts, spread throughout the unit and essentially one in five acres within those units will be cleared of mature forest habitat.
Miller: Luke Ruediger, thanks very much for joining us.
Ruediger: Thank you.
Miller: Luke Ruediger is the conservation director for the Klamath Forest Alliance and the executive director of the Applegate-Siskiyou Alliance.
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