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Lawsuit aims to protect threatened species, but fire scientist says management delays could be worse

Looking through a forest floor during the day. A forest fire has ripped through the forest, leaving sections barren of trees.
Bob Wick
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Southern Oregon

Four environmental groups are threatening to sue federal agencies over a new forest treatment plan. The activists say the Bureau of Land Management isn’t doing enough to protect two threatened species in Southern Oregon.

A proposed lawsuit from Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center and Western Environmental Law Center seeks to protect the marbled murrelet and coastal marten, which are both threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The BLM’s Integrated Vegetation Management forest management plan outlines 150,000 acres of prescribed fires, small diameter tree thinning, and commercial thinning in late successional reserves over the next ten years.

They argue the new decade-long forest management plan will be ineffective. The groups claim the proposed projects would make the old-growth forests less resilient to fire.

But Regional Fire Specialist Chris Adlam with Oregon State University says the BLM plan is a good approach and that the plan will help reintroduce beneficial fire.

“We wanna avoid these large areas of high-severity fire that tend to burn again and again at high severity, and prevent the forest from regenerating,” Adlam says.

He says, there's a difference between low-intensity and high-intensity wildfires. Low-intensity fires — such as those happening naturally or in prescribed burns — can be beneficial. But high-intensity fires, like many wildfires we see now, can bring negative effects to the landscape and take longer for recovery.

Adlam says the 2020 Slater Fire wiped out huge portions of northern spotted owl habitat. That’s not the only time endangered species habitat has been threatened by high-intensity wildfire.

“We’re seeing massive tree die-off due to drought and climate change; and our forests are over-capacity. We’re trying to address those concerns at a large scale.”

According to the Sacramento Bee, a proposed 2011 forest thinning project planned in the Klamath National Forest faced a decade of objections by environmental groups, claiming the project would destroy northern spotted owl habitat.

As the U.S. Forest Service produced hundreds of pages of environmental reviews over objections to the project and faced other bureaucratic delays, the 2021 Antelope Fire burned through the project area, destroying the owl habitat environmental groups were fighting to protect.

Adlam says these campaigns simplify the facts around forest resiliency.

“Even though they [old-growth forests] are more fire-resistant relative to younger forests that have been managed for timber production, they’re still pretty vulnerable to high-severity fire,” Adlam says.

He says decades of removing natural wildfire from these forests have changed them just like removing water from a wetland. The old-growth forests have become thicker, restricting the growth of new vegetation under the canopy like pine trees.

A map of the Rogue Valley. Highlighted in blue throughout is sections of land targeted for treatment by the Medford BLM as part of their new forest management plan, the "Integrated Vegetation Management for Resilient Lands"
Bureau of Land Management
A map showing the sections of Medford BLM land targeted for treatment as part of its new forest management plan.

The new forest management plan proposed by the Medford office of the BLM is essentially designed to re-introduce fire back into these forests. Adlam says forest managers need to treat forests so future fires don’t burn as intensely, which would also help the forests grow back healthier.

The IVM plan is also meant to speed up the regulatory process. Traditionally, the BLM has been required to do duplicate work for proposed management projects. Under the new management plan, the agency has a guide to apply to future projects.

“This is a lot bigger than hazardous fuels reduction around people’s homes,” says Kyle Sullivan, public affairs specialist for the Medford BLM. “We’re seeing massive tree die-off due to drought and climate change, and our forests are over-capacity. We’re trying to address those concerns at a large scale.”

Nick Cady with Cascadia Wildlands, one of the groups threatening to sue, argues the BLM is taking a broad-brush approach to the region instead of identifying the best management for each project.

“Even if the BLM is proposing the same treatment and they’re like ‘Oh, we’re doing the same analysis’, that analysis is going to differ on the conditions on the ground, right? If it’s a plantation or an old-growth forest,” Cady says.

None of the IVM plan is set in stone, according to BLM representatives, and individual projects can be altered based on community feedback. That could mean excluding endangered species habitat.

After public feedback on the management plan as a whole, the BLM excluded the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument from any projects.

 Two maps showing the habitat range of the threatened species named in the lawsuit. In the top map, the purple outlines the marbled murrelet's range, and in the lower map, the coastal marten's range is outlined in red.
Two maps showing the habitat range of the threatened species named in the lawsuit. In the top map, the purple outlines the marbled murrelet's range, and in the lower map, the coastal marten's range is outlined in red.

While the proposed lawsuit intends to protect habitat for the marbled murrelet and coastal marten, no proposed IVM projects overlap with the animals' habitats. The only project proposed under the new management plan is the Late Mungers Project, located in the Applegate Valley. The marbled murrelet and coastal marten are found on the southwest and western edges of the BLM treatment area.

Documents from the BLM discussing the two species say, while some of the treatments proposed may remove habitat for the animals, the treatment is needed to avoid further habitat loss.

“Treatments designed to lower fire risks in the short-and long-term, such as prescribed burning and mechanical treatments may (ultimately) improve the suitability of habitat for the coastal marten and may be essential to reducing the potential for catastrophic wildfire.”

The BLM document also notes any proposed treatments affecting the endangered species wouldn't happen over the entire habitat, meaning treatment areas would have time to recover and without completely destroying their habitat.

Adlam warns that if government agencies and conservation groups don’t work together, they could waste time as future catastrophic wildfires put species at greater risk.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.