Science & Environment

Southern Oregon tree sitters protest old-growth logging from 100 feet above the forest floor

By Justin Higginbottom (Jefferson Public Radio)
April 11, 2024 1 p.m. Updated: April 11, 2024 6:04 p.m.
A tree sitter is stationed at the top of an old-growth ponderosa pine in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Poor Windy project area in Josephine County, Ore. A group of activists is fighting proposed logging in the Poor Windy project area.

A tree sitter is stationed at the top of an old-growth ponderosa pine in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Poor Windy project area in Josephine County, Ore. A group of activists is fighting proposed logging in the Poor Windy project area.

Justin Higginbottom / JPR

In dense forests off I-5 in Josephine County, Oregon, up a few miles of winding dirt roads, a handful of tents, a hammock and an acoustic guitar mark the camp of those describing themselves as “forest defenders.”


This land, at the foothills of the Cascades, is a checkerboard of private and public ownership. The square of thick forest where activists have been camping for a week is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the agency’s 11,000-acre Poor Windy project that includes areas slated for commercial timber harvest as well as forest thinning to prevent wildfires from getting out of control.

One activist, who wants to go by just “Taylor,” gestured to some of the larger trees among the camp.

“You can kind of see the ones with the orange markings around them here. These are all old-growth trees,” she said.

What makes a tree “old growth” can vary. But for the BLM, trees between 36 to 40 inches in diameter, depending on the area, and over 174 years old are generally off-limits to logging.

At the top of one of these trees, a massive Ponderosa pine with a thin band of orange paint around its trunk, a big banner reads: “No Old Growth Logging in a Climate Crisis.” There’s a small platform attached to the trunk near the top, over 100 feet above the forest floor.

“How’s the view up there?” yelled Taylor to the tree sitter, who declined to give their name, stationed on the platform.

“It’s beautiful. I see mountains all around. I see a lot of other old-growth trees along this ridgeline,” they yelled down.

“I’m up here to send a message to the Bureau of Land Management, that there are people watching them. And that we’re here to protest old-growth logging,” they said, speaking over a radio.

The activists here claim a logging company plans to put a road through this spot — that’s why they’ve chosen this location as their camp. Despite these old-growth trees being marked for protection, loggers can cut them down if they are in the way. George Sexton, conservation director with the Ashland-based environmental nonprofit Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, calls it a loophole.

“Where those tree sitters are shows that the BLM is in fact logging old-growth trees that are older than our nation,” said Sexton.


In 2022, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to inventory old-growth forests and develop policies for their protection.

But some conservation groups think the federal government isn’t doing enough and, in response, they have been fighting timber sales like this one. Nearly 40 organizations recently sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning demanding the cancellation of the Poor Windy project. The BLM has already scaled back the plan, dropping around 10,000 acres, after a judge found it harmed protected spotted owl habitat. And environmental groups recently filed a complaint against the BLM to protect old-growth forest in the Rogue Gold Forest Management Project near Gold Hill in Southern Oregon.

“The BLM needs to faithfully implement old-growth protections, which they’re not doing right now. Or they need to acknowledge that they’re logging old growth and explain why they’re doing it,” said Sexton, whose organization was party to both of those lawsuits.

A spokesperson with the BLM’s Medford office, meanwhile, said that old-growth logging isn’t the goal for these projects.

“We work really hard to design timber sales and access roads to have the least amount of impact. We hear from our timber operators that they don’t want to cut those larger trees. It’s a safety issue. It increases the costs,” said Kyle Sullivan, a BLM spokesperson.

He said that there are barely any mills left in Oregon that can take old-growth sized logs and claimed those large trees that are felled are left on the forest floor to become wildlife habitat.

The BLM has legal requirements for how to manage forests in Josephine County, Sullivan said. The Oregon and California Revested Lands Sustained Yield Management Act of 1937 — better known as the O&C Act — mandates the region be managed for permanent timber production. The BLM’s 2016 Southwest Oregon Resource Management Plan sets the quantity of timber sales and also prescribes thinning out forests to reduce fuel for wildfire.

“Some studies have shown that over 51% of forests in southwest Oregon are overly dense and in need of treatment. And so the actions that the BLM designs help reduce that competition, they can open up the canopy,” said Sullivan.

Although there’s disagreement about whether BLM’s actions in this area will help control wildfires. Sexton, with KS Wild, thinks the Poor Windy project will increase wildfire risk. He claimed that the agency’s efforts at reducing the forest canopy and the planting of Douglas fir trees can raise fire hazards. The BLM, meanwhile, sees those actions as vital to treating forests that have become overgrown after decades of fire suppression.

Studies do show that old-growth trees are more resilient to fire.

Back at the “forest defender” camp at Poor Windy, while details of forest management are debated in court, this tree sitter deals with more immediate challenges.

“Well the sale is called Poor Windy. And it does sometimes get pretty windy up here. So that’s kind of the biggest challenge,” they said.

Despite the weather, they don’t plan to come down soon.

“How long you plan on being up there for?” Taylor yelled into the canopy high above their head.

“As long as it takes!” came the reply.