Four environmental groups threaten to sue federal agencies over new forest treatment plan

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Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southern Oregon.

Bob Wick/BLM

Four environmental groups are threatening to sue federal agencies over a new forest treatment plan. Activists say the Bureau of Land Management is not doing enough to protect two endangered species in southern Oregon.

A lawsuit proposed by Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Western Environmental Law Center seeks to protect marbled murres and coastal martens, both of which are threatened under the Endangered Species Act of disappearance.

The BLM’s Integrated Vegetation Management Forest Management Plan outlines 150,000 acres of prescribed fires, small diameter tree thinning and commercial thinning in late succession reserves over the next 10 years.

They argue that the new decade-long forest management plan will be ineffective. The groups say the proposed projects would make old growth forests less fire resistant.

But regional fire specialist Chris Adlam of Oregon State University says the BLM plan is a good approach and the plan will help reintroduce beneficial fire.

“We want to avoid these large areas of high intensity fires that tend to burn over and over again at high intensity and prevent the forest from regenerating,” Adlam says.

He says there is a difference between low-intensity and high-intensity wildfires. Low intensity fires, such as those that occur naturally or in prescribed burns, can be beneficial. But high-intensity fires, like many of the wildfires we see now, can have negative effects on the landscape and take longer to recover.

Adlam says the 2020 Slater Fire wiped out huge swathes of northern spotted owl habitat. This isn’t the only time the habitat of endangered species has been threatened by high-intensity wildfires.

According to Sacramento beeA proposed 2011 thinning project in the Klamath National Forest faced a decade of objections from environmental groups, saying the project would destroy northern spotted owl habitat.

As the U.S. Forest Service produced hundreds of pages of environmental reviews following objections to the project and faced other bureaucratic delays, the Antelope Fire of 2021 burned through the project area, destroying habitat for owls that environmental groups were fighting to protect.

Adlam says these campaigns simplify the facts about forest resilience.

” Even if they [old-growth forests] are more fire resistant than younger forests that have been managed for timber production, they are still quite vulnerable to high intensity fires,” says Adlam.

He says decades of removing natural wildfire from these forests has changed them, as has removing water from a wetland. Old growth forests have become thicker, limiting the growth of new vegetation under the canopy such as pines.

A map showing sections of Medford BLM land targeted for treatment under the agency's new forest management plan.

A map showing sections of Medford BLM land targeted for treatment under the agency’s new forest management plan.

BLM

The new forest management plan proposed by the Medford office of the BLM is essentially designed to reintroduce fire into these forests. Adlam says forest managers need to treat forests so future fires don’t burn as intensely, which would also help forests grow back healthier.

The IVM plan also aims to speed up the regulatory process. Traditionally, the BLM has been required to do duplicate work for proposed management projects. As part of the new management plan, the agency has a guide to apply to future projects.

“It’s much bigger than reducing hazardous fuels around people’s homes,” says Kyle Sullivan, public affairs specialist for the Medford BLM. “We are seeing massive tree death due to drought and climate change, and our forests are over capacity. We are trying to address these concerns on a large scale.

Nick Cady with Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups threatening to sue, says the BLM takes a general approach to the area instead of identifying the best management for each project.

“Even if the BLM is offering the same treatment and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re doing the same analysis,’ that analysis is going to differ depending on the conditions on the ground, right? If it’s ‘a plantation or an old-growth forest,’ Cady explains.

According to BLM representatives, no IVM plan is set in stone and individual projects can be changed based on community feedback. This could mean exclusion from the habitat of endangered species.

After public comment on the management plan as a whole, the BLM excluded Cascade Siskiyou National Monument from any plans.

Two maps showing the range of habitats of the threatened species named in the lawsuit.  On the top map, purple delineates Marbled Murrelet range, and on the bottom map, Coastal Marten range is delineated in red.

Two maps showing the range of habitats of the threatened species named in the lawsuit. On the top map, purple delineates Marbled Murrelet range, and on the bottom map, Coastal Marten range is delineated in red.

BLM

While the proposed lawsuit aims to protect marbled murrelet and coastal marten habitat, no proposed MVI projects overlap with the habitats of the animals. The only proposed project under the new management plan is the Late Mungers project, located in the Applegate Valley. Marbled murrelet and coastal marten are found on the southwestern and western edges of the BLM treatment area.

BLM documents dealing with both species indicate that while some of the proposed treatments may remove habitat for the animals, the treatment is necessary to prevent further habitat loss.

“Treatments designed to reduce short- and long-term fire hazards, such as prescribed burning and mechanical treatments, may (ultimately) improve habitat suitability for coastal marten and may be essential to reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfires.”

The BLM document also notes that any proposed treatment affecting the endangered species would not occur throughout the habitat, meaning treatment areas would have time to recover without completely destroying their habitat.

Adlam warns that if government agencies and conservation groups don’t work together, they could waste time as future catastrophic wildfires put species at greater risk.

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