(SALEM, OR) Despite whistleblower reports of mismanagement and outcry from conservation groups, an independent forester hired by the state of Oregon gave the state’s post-fire hazard tree removal a stamp of approval after a hasty inspection. Conservation groups are unconvinced by the findings.
As heavy logging in burned areas continues throughout Oregon, an independent arborist hired to assess the state’s hazard tree removal program announced he found no issues with the program. The State of Oregon hired the arborist to determine the credibility of the program after whistleblowers levied heavy accusations about its management.
Last week, Galen Wright announced that he found 96% of the trees that he assessed were properly marked for removal. Wright examined over 2,200 trees during a week of work in three major burn areas.
Environmentalists are extremely wary of taking the arborist’s word at face value. Dylan Plummer, grassroots organizer for Eugene-based conservation group, Cascadia Wildlands, says there’s little credibility in Wright’s hasty assessment, paid for by the same entities facing public scrutiny over logging
“Our communities have been looking at the logging, and it doesn’t seem 96% [is] good to us,” Plummer said. “It’s pretty clear 96% wasn’t done appropriately or conservatively.”
In contrast to the forester’s findings, Plummer says the overcutting is evident to anyone who has spent time in the heavily logged corridors of Highways 126 and 244. “We’ve been watching it, we expected it… It’s disheartening to say the least,”
The 2020 wildfire season in Oregon was the worst ever recorded. 17 major fires and even more smaller fires scorched the state. Once all the blazes were extinguished, the fires burned over 1.2 million acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed at least 11 Oregonians.
Under normal circumstances, the State of Oregon requires timber companies to conduct an environmental impact report on the trees they plan to cut as well as a public comment period that allows communities to respond to the proposed logging. However, once a wildfire affects an area, most of the protections for trees and required environmental impact reports are waived.
A hazard tree is defined as any tree that, once burned, poses a risk of falling on a road, trail or other public thoroughfare. As soon as a state-licensed arborist deems the tree hazardous, it can be felled immediately without any further review.
After the 2020 wildfires, the Oregon Debris Management Task Force contracted Florida-based disaster recovery agency CDR Maguire Emergency Management for $75.5 million to lead its hazard tree removal program.
Over 200,000 trees have been marked for removal.
As post-fire logging ramped up in early 2021, whistleblowers began coming forward with a multitude of accusations against the contractors tasked with removing the hazard trees.
Cascadia Wildlands, along with other environmental groups, sounded the alarm over the complaints and logging proposals in April, calling them a “timber grab” by CDR Maguire and the timber companies who won bids to participate.
First speaking to Oregon Public Broadcasting, then in testimony to Oregon lawmakers in April and May, multiple arborists hired for the project alleged that there was widespread mismarking of trees for removal, logging into protected watersheds, felling of live trees, drug use and labor fraud. The metrics the foresters use to determine what qualifies as a hazard tree were also called into question.
After the release of images from the clear-cuts and aerial footage of the once-scenic Clackamas River watershed being heavily logged, calls for a pause to the logging pending a thorough environmental review grew louder. Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, called on Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to place a statewide pause on the hazard logging.
“We’ve heard from local politicians and experts, they are overzealous in their logging,” Plummer said. “Their methods used to determine which are hazard trees are illogical...They are uncritically clear-cutting linear swathes of trees on the sides of mountains and along rivers… It’s impossible for a tree to fall 200 yards uphill and land on a roadway. ”
The Oregon Department of Transportation, which oversees the tree removal program and did not respond to request for comment, previously denied any allegations of mismanagement.
In April, ODOT spokesperson Tony Anderson alleged, without evidence, that the whistleblower complaints were the result of an organized disinformation campaign by Cascadia Wildlands, which Plummer calls “crazy.”
Most of the areas slated to be logged or currently undergoing cutting are closed to the public, and with the lack of a public comment period, organizations like Cascadia Wildlands are unable to challenge the logging proposals before they are approved.
After the arborist’s report, environmental groups are not letting up in their fight against the post-fire logging. Cascadia Wildlands is calling on Brown to place a statewide pause on the logging efforts pending a more thorough environmental impact report it hopes will soon be conducted by Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.
Plummer says the pause is necessary because, without it, all the trees will be cut before the report is finished.
In addition to the roadside hazard logging, environmentalists are engaged in a multi-pronged fight against post-fire “salvage logging” on Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and state-managed lands across the state.
Similar to hazard logging, any forest that has burned can be quickly sold off and logged as “salvage” with no environmental or public oversight so that it can be cut and sold before the wood rots or becomes infested with beetles, as trees naturally do after burning.
Plummer says calling burned forests “salvage” is an effort by the timber industry to imply burned areas are worthless. However, studies show that the best method for post-fire forest recovery is to leave the forest as intact as possible.
As another potentially devastating wildfire season approaches, much of the planned logging from last year’s fires remains to be done. If expert predictions of another record-breaking fire season prove true, Oregon’s controversial post-fire logging program will surely continue into 2022.
Plummer says Cascadia Wildlands is not only thinking of the current logging, but future efforts.
“We can’t just continue unfettered logging of our forests year-round, or we’ll have no forest left.”