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Environmental groups and the BLM fight over forests, but share similar passions and goals

A man wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses stands in the middle of a forested slope. Next to him is a tree with an orange marking around the trunk. He's talking about something and gesturing as he does so.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center Conservation Director George Sexton stands in one of the areas the BLM is proposing a commercial forest treatment as part of the Late Mungers project

Environmental groups and federal agencies seem to be locked in a never-ending fight over how to manage our forests. Can they work together?

The Applegate Valley is a beautiful part of Southern Oregon, full of small towns, local vineyards and home to threatened species like the Northern Spotted Owl.

Standing in the hills west of town, George Sexton unfolds a large paper map of the valley, and points to a winding, rocky road.

“So we started out in Williams,” says Sexton, the conservation director of the environmental nonprofit Klamath-Siskiyou Wildland Center or KS Wild. “This would be the valley bottom. Drove up to this Powell creek access road. And you can see the white is private, the darker color is BLM.”

Sexton and several colleagues with KS Wild are standing in one of many sites where the Bureau of Land Management is proposing a series of tree thinnings and prescribed burns as part of the Late Mungers project.

This is the first project to use the new Integrated Vegetation Management, or IVM, plan. Finalized by the BLM this year, it’s designed to help forests become more resilient to wildfire.

"We’re choosing to have these really intense, extreme fires because we just can’t put them out."

The Late Mungers project contains more than 6,500 acres of proposed non-commercial tree thinning and prescribed burning, and around 800 acres of commercial treatment – which some environmental groups call logging – where the logs would be used for lumber but the goal of the project is forest resiliency.

Sexton isn’t happy with the way the BLM is approaching this project.

When you ask him why he’s so adamantly opposed to most of what the BLM does, he’d say it’s because the agency uses the IVM plan as a justification to harvest timber and it eliminates the need for site-specific analysis before projects begin.

“The purpose of the IVM program is to preclude that kind of analysis,” Sexton says, “It is to say ‘We’ve looked at the whole landscape. And we wanna do the logging. And so now we have a checklist that allows us to speed up that logging.’”

Sexton and other conservation groups will sometimes call these projects secret timber-sales or claim they’ll actually increase wildfire risk. But the BLM and some fire scientists argue the exact opposite, saying these forests need management to better stand against wildfire.

Choosing extreme fires

“One of the big problems with the way that we’ve managed our landscapes over the years – and especially with fire exclusion – is that we’ve created these really continuous, homogeneous stands of overly dense trees,” says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire scientist with the University of California on the North Coast.

Aerial photos of forests in the Illinois Valley, of which nearby BLM land which is included in the IVM plan, show a thick, closed-canopy forest. But historical pictures from 1940 show the same areas with little forest cover, all areas without a history of timber harvest.

Two aerial photos comparing forest conditions from 1940 to present day. The present day photo shows much more tree cover than the photo from 1940
Terry Fairbanks
Aerial photos of forested areas in the Illinois Valley in the vicinity of the IVM plan. The historical photo from 1940 (left) shows little to no forest cover, while present day (right) is nearly full of trees. This area is part of the Upper Briggs project, which includes removing trees to restore historical meadows.

While these photos are of areas not in the IVM plan, they’re meant to show the result of decades of fire exclusion in our forests, and reasoning behind the BLM’s goals with the plan. Without the natural introduction of wildfire to the landscape, the trees have encroached on areas that used to be quite open.

Some activists like Sexton argue the old-growth forests we have now are already fire resilient, and treatment efforts should be focused elsewhere.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he says, walking through an area the BLM says is a fire risk. “It’s 15 degrees cooler where we’re standing now underneath an intact late successional forest canopy.”

It’s true, a cooler, more humid forest leads to less-intense wildfires. But Quinn-Davidson says looking at the overall intention of a forest management project is important to see what the effects could be elsewhere.

“We’re choosing to have these really intense, extreme fires because we just can’t put them out,” she says. “And so when a fire like that moves through that overly dense and really continuous homogeneous forest, there’s not a lot that we can do to keep it from causing a lot of damage.”

Conflicting information and losing interest

At the BLM’s district office in Medford, District Manager Elizabeth Burghard says some of these crossed-wires come from the extended length of time these projects go without much publicly available information to back them up.

“For example, there were people requesting information about Late Mungers a year in advance of the Integrated Vegetation Management project decision coming out,” Burghard says.

Groups have requested the site-specific information for the Late Mungers project, but Burghard says they don’t want to be flooding the public with information that may not make it into the final draft of a project. She says more detailed information will eventually be made available once things are finalized.

“One gets the feeling that the Medford BLM and KS Wild should be in some sort of couples therapy."

She says with all of the public comment and planning involved in the IVM plan, it took two-and-a-half years to finally approve it.

“In this day and age, that’s a long, long time,” she says. “People have wondered ‘Hey, what happened to that project I provided input on?’”

Burghard says taking too much time on planning can create a breeding ground for false claims or lead to people losing interest.

While technically a timber sale, Burghard says the motivation is not to harvest the timber, instead to create a more resilient forest. According to the agency’s website the commercial harvesting in the project doesn’t count towards their Allowable-Sale-Quantity volume, a metric the BLM uses for the forests it actively manages for timber harvest.

“They do not count towards that measure of what our economic contribution is for commercial harvest,” Burghard says.

If the BLM was doing this project to sell timber, they’d essentially be giving it away for free, and Burghard says because this is a reserve area, they’d be prevented from doing that by their own regulations.

A sloped hill covered by trees. Some of the trees have orange markers around their trunks
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
An area the BLM is proposing a commercial treatment for the Late Mungers project. The orange rings around some of the trees signify those won't be cut down.

She thinks the IVM plan’s faster timeline will help with community engagement.

“By being able to put our project out for public feedback, do our field trips, solicit feedback from the public and then reach a timely decision, that’s gonna help us to keep people engaged and help them be assured that they were heard,” says Burghard.

However, KS Wild opposes the IVM plan because its timeline cuts out opportunities for public comment by speeding things up. It’s true that the IVM plan does shorten the project planning time and reduce opportunities for public comment, but that’s by design.

With the IVM plan, BLM staff took a broad look across the Southern Oregon landscape, and developed some templates and strategies that can be used in future forest projects. In doing so, the agency can avoid having to go back and do the same research over and over again for new projects.

“One gets the feeling that the Medford BLM and KS Wild should be in some sort of couples therapy,” says Oregon State University Fire Researcher James Johnston.

How can these groups stop fighting and focus on what’s important: protecting forests and the surrounding communities before a catastrophic fire?

Cooperate, not contend

One solution comes from Terry Fairbanks, director of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative.

“If they think the BLM is only in it for the timber,” she says. “And that all the BLM managers are only about more timber, there’s no basis for having that conversation if you don’t see some of the sincerity of some of the specialists and managers in trying to do the right thing.”

Fairbanks has been a forester in Oregon for over 33 years. Her group is something like a bridge between agencies and activists , aiming to collaborate with forest managers rather than fight them.

Fairbank’s forest collaborative helped to form the Rogue Forest Partners, a group that plans and performs commercial and non-commercial treatments such as prescribed burns. Their work is done in collaboration with government agencies, including the BLM.

She says it’s important to focus on where all this passion from groups like KS Wild, the BLM and SOFRC comes from.

A man stands in the middle of a forest. He is holding a birds feather with his hand stretched towards the camera
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
George Sexton finds a bird's feather as he heads along a proposed logging road in the Late Mungers Project

“I think we both support healthy forests, good wildlife habitat, clean water, protecting our communities,” Fairbanks says. “I think we all favor those things. It’s maybe the methods we go about getting at them.”

Fairbanks says conservation groups should be working to oversee these programs to ensure they’re being done responsibly.

There are areas both groups agree on, Sexton says. KS Wild is a supporter of the non-commercial prescribed burns and thinning of plantation forests.

“We encourage and support the BLM’s language about resiliency and restoration,” he says “But we want them to walk their talk.”

Both sides may disagree on specific actions taken, but Fairbanks would argue they all share a common goal. And coming together to accomplish those goals is what’s best for the forests, surrounding communities and the endangered species within them.

All these groups stress the need to take immediate action to protect forests. Burghard says she wants to work with environmental groups, but finding a common ground and a starting point for collaboration is key.

Whenever she drives through the Applegate Valley, Burghard says she’s seeing more and more trees dying from drought stress and over-competition.

“Every time I’m there it impresses upon me the need for us to get going on taking action to change that dynamic,” she says.

Corrected: September 25, 2022 at 2:44 PM PDT
This story has been updated to clarify and correct disputed aspects of the IVM plan. This includes: clarification of the historical photos in the Illinois Valley to emphasize they are not specifically areas in the IVM plan, but meant to show the reasoning behind the BLM’s decision, mentioning that commercial treatments in the Late Mungers project are technically timber sales according to the BLM and noting disputes over calling the commercial treatments “commercial logging.”
This story has also been updated to reflect that Rogue Forest Partners performs both commercial and non-commercial treatments.
Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. 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 JPR newsroom.