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Earthrise

Walton Lake Win! Forest Service Withdraws Plans to Clearcut Ochoco

October 27, 2016

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    Walton Lake is a popular recreation site. Here Earthrise attorney Tom Buchele and his dog Peggy enjoy the view.
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    The Ochoco National Forest is made up of a dense conifer mix, mostly made up of Douglas and Grand fir.
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    Attorney and Earthrise Alum Jesse Buss shows just how large the old growth fir have grown.
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    Walton Lake, a popular recreation site would look dramatically different if the proposed logging had gone through.

After obtaining a preliminary injunction to halt logging in the Ochoco National Forest that was scheduled to begin on October 17th, Earthrise is pleased to announce the Forest Service has withdrawn it decision authorizing the logging of hundreds of large and old growth Douglas-fir and Grand fir in the Walton Lake area of the Ochoco. This area is one of the most popular recreation sites in the Ochoco as well as a location of magnificent old growth and significant wildlife habitat. 

On August 15th, 2016, Earthrise attorney Tom Buchele and Earthrise alum Jesse Buss filed litigation on behalf of the League of Wilderness Defenders/Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (LOWD/BMBP) to challenge the “Walton Lake Restoration Project.” Although the Forest Service repeatedly told the public and the press that this project would only “thin” the beautiful old growth forest that surrounds Walton Lake, the Forest Service actually planned to remove virtually all Grand fir and Douglas-fir—including enormous old growth trees—from some of the areas around Walton Lake.

At oral argument for the injunction, Buchele and Buss were joined by Earthrise fellow Doug DeRoy and Earthrise clinical student Tessa Chillemi. In granting the injunction, the Court specifically found that the plaintiff was likely to prevail on at least one of its claims. In its letter announcing the withdrawal of the project, the Forest Service said it intended to conduct “additional analysis of the proposed activities under the National Environmental policy Act [NEPA].”

For the Walton Lake project, the Forest Service attempted to comply with NEPA by using a Categorical Exclusion process, which severely limits opportunities for public comment. The Forest Service’s public notices regarding the project did not clearly explain that the Forest Service intended to remove all fir trees from some areas, including hundreds of firs over 21 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) and numerous, enormous old growth firs. Most of the Forest Service’s press releases and public postings at the Walton Lake campground inaccurately described all of the proposed logging as “thinning.” But its internal analysis of the Project described the logging in one area as a “clearcut” and predicted, “the immediate impacts to visual resources would be extremely noticeable.” In fact the dense mixed-conifer forest that currently provides lovely views to the south and east of Walton Lake would have been radically transformed by the proposed clearcutting.

Much of the logging authorized by this Project also would have violated mandatory restrictions called the Eastside Screens, which prohibit the Forest Service from logging trees over 21 inches dbh in the Ochoco National Forest. The Forest Service attempted to misuse a narrow exception in the Eastside Screens meant to address the removal of “roadside or campground hazard trees”—damaged, diseased, or dead trees next to roads or in campgrounds that pose a legitimate threat to human health and safety. The Forest Service’s attempt to log hundreds of large and old trees away from roads or campgrounds was an unprecedented misuse of that narrow exception.

The Forest Service claimed that logging was needed to eliminate root rot that supposedly was creating a public safety problem, even though many of the targeted firs are not currently infected and are nowhere near the Walton Lake campsites or roads. Moreover, logging is known to spread root rot. The Forest Service has the ongoing ability to fell legitimate roadside and campground hazard trees; the cancellation of this project does not change that.

BMBP is a project of LOWD, and is based in eastern Oregon. BMBP is dedicated to protecting and restoring native forest and high desert ecosystems in four National Forests—the Ochoco, Umatilla, Malheur, and Deschutes—and the Prineville BLM District.