EPIC: The Largest Timber Sale Ever?

Tom Wheeler, EPIC Executive Director

Roadside logging after the 2020 August complex on the Six Rivers National Forest.
This area was on a dead end spur road and was a nest core for the Northern spotted owl.

The Forest Service is attempting its largest timber sale in modern history. Innocuously titled the “Region 5 Post-Disturbance Hazard Tree Project,” the project would allow logging of fire-affected trees—so-called “salvage logging”—near roads and trails across California’s national forests. The project is so large that the Forest Service split it into three zones—North Zone, Central Sierra and Southern Sierra—with each zone covering multiple national forests. The North Zone is likely going to be of prime concern for North Coast residents as it covers our nearby forests, the Six Rivers, Shasta-Trinity, Mendocino and Klamath National Forests.

The scale of the proposed logging is enormous. The project includes 5,780 miles of roads and trails. To put that into perspective, that is enough distance to go from Los Angeles to New York City! In the North Zone, the Forest Service is proposing to log up to 600 foot swathes across 2,708 miles of roads and 341 trails, equaling nearly 200,000 acres. Uncounted and undisclosed by the Forest Service are the number of landings necessary to pile the logs before they are hauled out of the forest. These are not dead forests. In many cases, the Forest Service would be logging forests affected by fire but still very much alive, with only a 60 percent chance of succumbing to fire wounds in the immediate future. Even individual trees that have been killed by fire play an important role in fire-adapted ecosystems. So, removing them would have a significant impact. 

The Forest Service asserts that this aggressive logging is necessary to maintain its road and trail network. And we agree that removing trees that pose a hazard to road and trail users is appropriate. But the Forest Service has done the opposite: proposing almost limitless logging that would enable long snaking clearcuts across our public lands when a focused and narrowly tailored project would be more appropriate. 

While the Forest Service claims that this logging is necessary to keep roads safe, most of the roads slated for logging (81 percent) are poorly-maintained and rarely-used Maintenance Level 2 roads — agency-speak for roads managed for high-clearance vehicles and not intended for frequent travel. While some Maintenance Level 2 roads are important as ingress/egress routes in the case of an emergency, most serve no vital purpose. These roads are vestiges from another era, when National Forests were primarily managed for timber production, and we have way, way too many of them. Many roads that the Forest Service says are “vital” are in fact dead-end spur roads that are maintained for no other reason than to facilitate logging. Crisscrossing the landscape, these roads are a chief source of sediment pollution to local waterways, as they are often poorly maintained and constructed, with undersized culverts. 

Roadside logging after the 2021 Slater Fire on the Klamath National Forest notice the massive slash pile left behind.

What’s at stake from all this logging? Post-fire logging adds a disturbance on top of another disturbance, making already erosive landscapes bleed more sediment. Nearly every major river on the North Coast would be affected—from the Smith in the north to the South Fork Eel in the south—impacting in total more than 239 subwatersheds with increased sediment pollution, including 30 municipal watersheds. The project treatment areas contain multiple Tier 1 key watersheds and critical habitat for threatened and endangered salmon.

Northern spotted owls, Pacific fishers, Humboldt martens and other forest denizens would see their nest and denning trees logged. How many? It isn’t clear because the Forest Service will not complete surveys to protocol before logging is planned to commence. The plan includes areas that we know were used by northern spotted owls and other species that require large, old trees and forests for their survival. The project touches nearly every northern spotted owl Critical Habitat Unit in Northern California and also would allow commercial logging within Late Successional Reserves and Riparian Reserves.

You would think that such a large project, with so many unknowns, would have had a rigorous environmental impact assessment. Nope! Instead we get a skimpy Environmental Analysis that repeatedly concludes that the proposed logging would not pose any significant impacts. 

There is another path forward. As EPIC told the Forest Service many months ago, when this was still a glimmer in its eye, the agency should focus efforts on high-use roads and other roads that serve a critical purpose, coupled with a review of the existing road network to see which roads were no longer necessary.  That would have found common ground to better protect the remarkable region of the North Coast. Instead, we have a massive timber sale in fire-affected watersheds that most certainly will include environmental impacts to our national forests and important wildlife habitats.