Courtesy of Leon Werdinger, Leon Werdinger Photography
There’s a tiny stretch of land in Northeastern Oregon that can inspire lofty description like this:
“An amazing treasure,” said Peter Barry, who lives in Joseph, Oregon. “I don’t want to extol its virtues too much because it’s already so crowded.”
The Lostine Corridor is a narrow strip of land, surrounded by the designated wilderness. For 11 miles, it reaches up into the Eagle Cap, making it one of the most popular entrances to Oregon’s largest wilderness area. Running through the corridor is the Lostine, a National Wild and Scenic River.
“Out of it comes this crystal clear, wild river,” Barry said. “I’ve been all around the West, and the Lostine River Corridor is a rare beauty.”
That rarity is why many people are concerned about this piece of forest. It’s soon to be home to a controversial thinning project that’s backed residents into separate corners.
The project is igniting a debate over what constitutes forest thinning for wildfire prevention and forest health. Critics see it as exploitation of a loophole — and perhaps the start of a trend in increased logging in the name of forest health across the West. Supporters say it’s a project that needs to get off the ground soon.
The U.S. Forest Service says hazardous trees riddle the Lostine — trees dead from bug infestations and disease. District Ranger Kris Stein said removing those trees also reduces wildfire risk.
“What people were seeing [in the Lostine Corridor] was a really steep increase in the amount of dead trees and material that were falling across the road, blocking the road and falling into the campgrounds and picnic areas,” Stein said.
There are people in Wallowa County who say — if the Lostine Corridor wasn’t such a sensitive area — it should be logged more. Take Bruce Dunn. He works for a local timber company and he chairs the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee.
“The stand is falling apart. Lodgepole pine’s got mountain bark beetle in it,” Dunn said. He also thinks the grand fir stands contribute too much fuel load to the forest.
The Forest Service wants to thin 450 acres of the corridor, which they say will reduce insect infestations and epidemics in the area. The entire project area is 2,110 acres.
Dunn said he won’t go into the narrow corridor during sweltering, dry summer months — too much of a fire risk, he said. That’s why he thinks this logging needs to happen sooner.
“It’s trying to provide a chance,” Dunn said. “Because right now, today, if there was a fire in there, you couldn’t get a large crew up in there in a large fire. It just wouldn’t happen.”
But others look at the same forest and see something totally different — a fairly healthy ecosystem that needs some work, but not as much as the Forest Service is suggesting.
Peter Barry, who owns ranching, mining, and forest land in the county, likes to venture into the steep slot canyon to find secret watering holes and marvel at old-growth trees.
“Probably the greatest risk to [the Lostine] is human beings,” he said. “We’re living in the past in Northeastern Oregon. People haven’t accepted that we’ve moved past the timber baron age.”
Barry worries this project is simply a reason to log more trees. He said the Lostine Corridor is on public land, and so the public should have more of a say in what happens to it.
Everyone interviewed knows something needs to be done to thin the forest — everyone said pieces of the project, like building a helipad for emergencies, creating a few fire breaks, and clearing hazard trees near campgrounds, are all good ideas.
It’s just a matter of how much.
At the heart of the controversy is a little-known provision in the 2014 Farm Bill, authored by U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. This provision is supposed to make it easier to take up small logging projects — in areas where the forest is under threat of bug infestation or wildfires.
But conservation groups are calling it a logging loophole because it eliminates the need for an environmental assessment.
Rob Klavins, with conservation group Oregon Wild, said that’s a bad idea in a place as sensitive as the Lostine Corridor.
“When you’re talking about logging on a wild and scenic river corridor that is surrounded by wilderness, with endangered plants and wildlife — all of these different things that this area has — it makes sense to actually do an environmental assessment,” Klavins said.
These assessments provide additional checks to make sure projects won’t harm the environment, conservationists say. Without this step, the approval process for logging — or forest thinning — is more streamlined and offers fewer opportunities for compromise or for opponents to slow it down in court.
“We are expecting to see fundamental attacks on environmental protections in the next couple of years. And we’re also expecting to see an erosion of enforcement of those fundamental environmental laws,” Klavins said. “If this is what we’re seeing right now in this place, I think it’s really scary for a lot of people about what we’re going to see in the future.”
A spokesman for Wyden’s office said the Lostine project is a good candidate for this type of logging project.
“The Lostine Corridor project is eligible for categorical exclusion because of the need to protect communities from wildfire – and to safeguard trees from insects, disease and fire,” spokesman Hank Stern wrote in an email. “Senator Wyden supports a thorough process that takes care to include all the parties working to find the best solution for this unique Eastern Oregon treasure.”