Much BLM timberland tied up in lawsuits

The Rogue River-Siskyou National Forest sold and awarded some 50.4 million board feet of timber in the 2007 federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

None of the timber, which fell just short of the forest's targeted annual 54 million board foot sales quantity under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, were litigated or appealed, officials reported.

In comparison, it's a different story with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, which was aiming at selling some 57 million board feet, but offered and sold 15.18 million board feet in that period. However, it also offered and sold another 8.67 million that were "reoffer" sales held over from previous years.

But only 5.3 million board feet of the BLM district's timber sold in the 2007 fiscal year is available for harvest, said district spokesman Jim Whittington.

"The reason is that the rest is tied up because of lawsuits," he said, noting that includes lawsuits against the BLM or other regulatory agency with a connection to that particular sale.

The difference between the two agencies is that the forest staff now focuses on selling small-diameter trees while the BLM district continues to push old-growth timber, said George Sexton, conservation director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

"We are seeing the Rogue River-Siskiyou putting up a significant amount of volume and having it go through because it's non-controversial," he said. "We've seen the national forest system slowly but surely moving toward small-diameter thinning and plantation thinning."

But he believes the BLM district officials consistently include old-growth timber in its sales, then blames environmental watch dogs when sales are litigated.

"The Rogue River-Siskiyou is getting its sales out yet they are dealing with the same environmental laws, the same ecosystems, the same activists," he said. "The difference is they've moved in the direction of collaboration rather than confrontation."

Whittington doesn't believe the BLM is attempting to be confrontational or focus on harvesting old-growth trees,

"Just about everything we offer is a mix," he said, noting that includes thinning smaller trees as well as harvesting some of the larger ones.

For example, two of the four timber sales sold in the 2007 fiscal year included two that were exclusively commercial thinnings, one was a salvage and the fourth an "80 percent regeneration harvest." The latter is often referred to as a "clearcut" by opponents to that method of logging.

He also notes that the 2006 fiscal year saw twice as many commercial thinning sales as regenerational harvests on the district.

As for old-growth, he notes what is old-growth timber to one person may not be to the other. The same species of trees grow at different rates in different parts of the state, he added.

"We look at a whole host of factors before we offer a timber sale," he said, noting the agency considers everything from the ecological and economic impact to the federal laws have jurisdiction over a sale.

Finally, the lower-elevation BLM lands have a different stand composition than the higher-elevation forest.

"We didn't offer any big trees — most of our (2007) program involved thinning and hazard tree removal with a low controversy," observed Rob Shull, the forest's staff officer for silviculture, timber, minerals and planning.

"From my conservations with environmental activists, I understand their opposition is focused on sales that take out large trees," he said, adding later, "It's nice to have a year like this."

Yet Shull doesn't expect the honeymoon to continue in the forest which experienced numerous appeals and lawsuits over salvaging the 2002 Biscuit fire in a battle that continued for several years after the fire.

For instance, he said the forest staff plans at some point to harvest big trees on the coastal side, a move that he expects could be controversial.

"Those trees are big, but not that old," he said. "We will need to remove some of them."

The forest actually offered some 10 million board feet above its 2007 target harvest following a Bush administration decision to boost annuals harvests, he said. Several more sales are expected to be awarded before the end of the month.

"If we can treat our forest and avoid lawsuits, that's what we want to do," Shull said. "We're actively trying to put up sales that don't knowingly put us in a lawsuit situation."

Yet agency decisions will be made on the best information available, he said.

"In the forest treatment arena, we're moving to meet our targets," he said.

Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, doesn't place much credence in Sexton's argument that the forest sold more timber because it offered more small diameter sales in fiscal year 2007.

Litigation during the winter stopped nearly every sale on the district, said Schott, a former prosecuting attorney.

But he noted falling lumber prices are also taking their toll.

"We're seeing some of the lowest prices for fir and white fir on a national basis that we've seen for years and years," he said. "Log prices have plummeted. The market has gone to heck."

Sexton said environmental activists would rather not be confrontational but they will continue to try to stop old-growth logging projects wherever they find them. They are concerned the preferred alternative in the BLM's draft Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR) will result in thousands of acres of old growth clearcuts, many in roadless areas, he said.

"But when the BLM offers small-diameter thinning projects they tend to sail through," he said. "When we all have an opportunities to work collaboratively with agencies to work on millions of acres of previously logged land in restoration forestry, it's a 'win-win' for everyone."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or at

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