AFRC, Eastern Oregon Counties Defend U.S. Forest Service’s ‘Eastside Screens’ Amendment

Today, the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) and Eastern Oregon Counties Association filed an opposition brief in a federal lawsuit seeking to vacate the U.S. Forest Service’s “Eastside Screens” Amendment that improves the agency’s ability to reduce wildfire risks and restore forest health on national forests in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.

Last year, AFRC joined the Eastern Oregon Counties Association to defend the Forest Service in its modest change to a Clinton-era rule, known as the Eastside Screens, which prohibited the removal of any trees larger than 21-inches in diameter in certain circumstances.

In 2021, the agency adopted an amendment that only impacts one standard in the Eastside Screens.  The amendment’s guideline requires the retention of old trees over 150-years-old and large trees, identifying diameter limits based on species type.  This guideline gives land managers flexibility to remove larger trees in forest restoration and wildfire mitigation projects. In June 2022, six anti-forestry groups filed the lawsuit claiming the amendment violated several federal environmental laws.

Since adopting the amendment, the Forest Service has developed several forest projects that implement hazardous fuels reduction and forest resiliency treatments.  Some projects are located in areas identified as Wildland Urban Interface where the wildfire threat to communities is heightened.  The lawsuit, if successful, would likely halt forest health treatments on at least 209,000 acres of fire-prone federal lands.

In its opposition brief, AFRC explains that the Eastside Screens Amendment was carefully developed and is necessary to protect communities and to adapt forests to the impacts of climate change, drought, insects and disease, and increasingly intense wildfires: “By all accounts, the [Amendment] will provide equal or improved protections for old and large trees and improve forest health and resilience to wildfire on forest lands across eastern Oregon and eastern Washington.”

In their motion for summary judgment, anti-forestry groups claim the amendment will have “significant environmental impacts,” which they claim the agency failed to consider, and that the Eastside Screens Amendment is “highly controversial” in the scientific community.

However, Dr. James Johnston filed an amicus brief with the court, sharing a letter signed by 14 forest ecologists, who work for public universities and non-profit organizations, disputing the argument that there is any controversy over the historical forest conditions and the effect of the Forest Service’s amendment.

“Many of Plaintiffs’ arguments about scientific controversy appear to be a straw man designed to confuse salient issues rather than accurately characterize the state of the science. We believe that Plaintiffs’ arguments are designed to give the impression of scientific controversy where no meaningful controversy among scientists exists,” Dr. Johnston wrote to the court.  They also explain how the scientific papers relied on by plaintiffs from Drs. DellaSala and Baker are “full of mischaracterizations of other scientists research and contain[] no meaningful or empirical rebuttal of our findings or our colleagues’ findings.”

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew D. Hallman is presiding over the case in Pendleton. Oral arguments in the case are expected on May 1, 2023.