AFRC, Eastern Oregon Counties Seek to Intervene to Defend Forest Health, Wildfire Mitigation

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) and the Eastern Oregon Counties Association (EOCA) have moved to intervene in a federal lawsuit challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s “Eastside Screens” Amendment that affects forest management on six national forests in Eastern Oregon, including the Malheur, Umatilla, Wallowa-Whitman, Deschutes, Ochoco, and Fremont-Winema.

In June 2022, six anti-forestry groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to block the amendment that better enables the Forest Service to reduce wildfire risks and restore forest health on these national forests. The lawsuit, if successful, may halt several forest projects that would conduct hazardous fuel reduction on at least 209,000 acres of land that are vulnerable to severe fire.

The lawsuit aims to preserve a Clinton-era rule, known as the Eastside Screens, which originally prohibited the removal of trees larger than 21 inches in diameter on several national forests. The Eastside Screens was a comprehensive management strategy that was intended to protect and improve forest conditions associated with late-seral or old growth habitat.  In practice, however, the rule has made it difficult for federal lands managers to remove tree species that compete with native pine and are less resilient to fire such as grand fir or white fir.

“We’re facing a wildfire crisis that is deforesting tens of thousands of acres of mature and old growth forests every year,” said AFRC President Travis Joseph.  “Instead of stepping up and working together to protect our water, air, and communities, anti-forestry groups are more interested in perpetuating conflict, litigation, and implementing antiquated policies that have no basis in science.  Even though there’s broad consensus to move forward with modern forest practices, these special interest groups are stuck in the 1990s.”

As a result of the Eastside Screens, the Forest Service struggled to keep pace with the growing risks and restoration needs of these federal lands, which places a variety of forest values and uses at risk.

“Many of the Eastside forests in Oregon’s trees have grown up since the Clinton era,” said Lake County Commissioner Barry Shullanberger.  “Now our forests are abundant with trees over 21 inches in diameter.  If the Forest Service followed the original Eastside Screens rule, they could not implement a prescription to open up the tree canopy to reduce fuel loads that carry wildfire.  By thinning tress up to 30 inches in diameter, this allows a fuel break and provides sunlight to come down to the forest floor to give a chance for new seedlings to grow and provide our future trees.  There is virtually no new tree growth under our large trees as it is now, and that is due to the Eastside Screens rule.”

Rather than lifting this rule completely, the Forest Service only made modest changes to its policy.  In January 2021, the agency adopted the “Old Tree and Large Tree Guidelines,” or Eastside Screens Amendment, which includes diameter limits for tree removal ranging from 21-inches to 30- inches, depending on tree species, and an overarching age limit on tree removal of 150 years.

Since adopting the new policy, 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.

If granted intervention, AFRC and EOCA will make arguments in court to preserve the Eastside Screens Amendment to improve the health of Eastern Oregon national forests, reduce risks to public lands and nearby communities, and implement projects that provide sustainable timber to support rural communities in eastern Oregon.

AFRC represents forest products manufacturers and affiliated companies who purchase and operate timber sales on lands managed by the Forest Service within the project area for the Eastside Screens Amendment. EOCA member counties have significant amounts of land within their borders managed by the Forest Service, and also have interests in harvestable timber, healthy forests, and recreation access to forest users.

“The varied and diverse nature of forested ecosystems across eastside national forests is the very reason why the single 21-inch rule has been counterproductive to the health of the forests, particularly when coupled with past faulty forest management practices,” said Andy Geissler, AFRC’s Federal Timber Program Director.  “The new guideline allows land managers the flexibility to adapt to future unforeseen conditions including those created by climate change, drought, insects and disease, and increasing, intense wildfires.”