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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Lawsuit challenges rollback of large tree protections east of the Cascades

Fog hovers above the treeline in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Southern Oregon. A new lawsuit by environmental groups aims at protecting large trees from logging.
Tom Iraci
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Fog hovers above the treeline in the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Southern Oregon. A new lawsuit by environmental groups aims at protecting large trees from logging.

A federal rule prohibited cutting trees larger than 21 inches in diameter for more than two decades on millions of forested acres in Oregon and Washington. That changed in the final days of the Trump administration.

Six conservation groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Forest Service over a decision to weaken protections for old and mature forests east of the Cascades.

Just days before President Trump left office last year, the Forest Service approved amendments to the Eastside Screens, a plan managing about 8 million forested acres of Oregon and Washington.

The amendments scrapped the “21-inch rule,” which prohibited cutting trees larger than 21 inches in diameter. The rule is seen among many in the conservation community as one of the most significant protections for large trees in dry-side forests.

“The 21-inch rule has been a bedrock of forest law in Eastern Oregon,” said Meriel Darzen, a staff attorney with Crag Law Center, which filed the legal challenge on the conservation groups’ behalf. “And removing it without a transparent process is not only contrary to environmental law but truly damaged the public’s trust in an agency like the Forest Service.”

The Eastside Screens were adopted in 1994 as temporary protection for mature forests and wildlife species. The intention was to develop a permanent plan for the six national forests east of the Cascades, but the Screens — and the 21-inch rule — remained in place for more than two decades.

The Forest Service amendments approved last year replaced the rule with “guidelines” that allow cutting grand fir and white fir up to 30 inches in diameter and other species up to 21 inches. The guidelines are not outright prohibitions.

The agency said at the time that it sometimes needed to log larger trees to prepare forests for wildfire and couldn’t do so without a lengthy regulatory review.

The Forest Service has not responded to OPB’s request for comment on the lawsuit.

“The reason the Eastside Screens were eliminated was because it was thought we need to cut some trees to save other trees,” said Amy Stuart with Great Old Broads for Wilderness, one of the conservation groups on the lawsuit. “I don’t buy that.”

Cutting large trees, the groups say, poses major threats to fish and wildlife, water quality, fire resilience, and the ability of forests to capture and store carbon. For example, research published in 2020 showed that trees larger than 21 inches in diameter make up about 3% of eastside forests but store about 42% of the carbon.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Pendleton, seeks restoration of the 21-inch rule and other elements of the Eastside Screens while a permanent policy is developed and undergoes full regulatory review.

Great Old Broads for Wilderness joined the lawsuit with Central Oregon LandWatch, Greater Hells Canyon Council, Oregon Wild, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.