Local Conservation Organizations and the US Forest Service at odds over ‘Danger Trees’ affected by the Archie Creek Fire
Written by Patrick Schneider on November 23, 2021
Roseburg, Ore. – In October, Umpqua Watersheds filed a complaint against the US Forest Service challenging the Forest Service’s decision to remove ‘Danger Trees’ along 65 miles of public roads comprising nearly 2,600 acres of the Umpqua National Forest.
On Aug 18, 2021, the Forest Service issued a final decision on its proposed Archie Creek Fire Roadside Danger Tree Project proposal. Implementation of the project was to be implemented, and according to Umpqua Watershed’s legal director, ‘without delay, with no opportunity for public input, and without environmental review or analysis.’ The Forest Service concluded that the Project was necessary because the trees were “dangerous” and deemed their decision as encompassed under what is called the “categorical exclusion” of road maintenance.
US Forest Service District Ranger, Sherri Chambers issued a memo summarizing the Forest Service’s intended actions. “I authorize these actions under the category established by 36 CFR 220.6(d)(4), repair and maintenance of roads, trails, and landline boundaries for which a project or case file and decision memo are not required. This category is applicable because actions are needed to maintain roads for public safety along identified travel routes by felling fire killed trees, or trees likely to die due to fire damage, and that have the potential of falling or sliding onto the roadway. Although this category does not require a Decision Memo (36 CFR 220.6), this documents my decision and consideration of extraordinary circumstances,” Chambers said referring to the categorical exclusion.
Rationale for the decision by the US Forest Service was to reduce hazards for people using certain roads.
“I have decided to authorize implementation of the Archie Creek Fire Danger Tree Project because I believe it is critically important to reduce known hazards adjacent to these fire-impacted forest roads to the greatest extent practical within the context of the current legal environment. The roads identified for action in this project are routes that are and will continue to be utilized by fire fighters, recreationists, and the public at large into the foreseeable future,” Chambers said.
Umpqua Watersheds admits some of the trees along these roads devastated by the Archie Creek fire may create a danger or hazard. Umpqua Watersheds claims the Forest Service’s use of a categorical exclusion did not consider the impact of their proposed action on the environment, the watershed, and wildlife. Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Angela D. Jensen, Esq., Conservation and Legal Director of Umpqua Watersheds says the Forest Service had agreed to postpone implementation of the project. “Basically, the motion asks the court to postpone deadlines that we would otherwise be bound by in continuing our litigation. It buys us time to listen to the other side and to open the table to potential settlement. And in my opinion, settling could be a bigger win for us as it serves to potentially foster better working relations while still demanding that they fulfil their statutory obligations,” Jensen said.
“If we are to realize any progress in environmental conservation, we must be willing to bend. I may not like it because industry has been afforded preference by our governments historically. It’s hard to not feel that the scales are tilted in the direction of industry for “economic” gain- the laws are written that way,” Jensen added.
Umpqua Watersheds says its goal in all of this is to ensure that agencies are performing a statutorily mandated environmental review. They say that if settlement talks are not progressive, Umpqua Watershed’s legal arguments stand, and they can move forward in their litigation efforts.
The Forest Service categorizes ‘Danger Trees’ as any tree with potential failure ratings of imminent, likely, or dead/dying that will become danger trees within 5 years. According to the Forest Service, trees will be identified and felled in accordance with Region 6 Danger Tree policy.
In its decision for deciding which trees should be removed, The Forest Service cites Hood et al. (2020) which establishes two guidelines that will be applied to specific trees and will be used to determine if a tree is likely (probability between 50 through 60%) to die within 3 years and become a danger tree based on crown scorch, bark char or signs of insect boring dust. Pursuant to the agreement, plaintiffs Umpqua Watersheds, Oregon Wild, and Cascadia Wildlands have agreed to postpone litigation and the pursuit of a temporary injunction on government action in return for withdrawing the complaint concerning specific areas of the project that are already under contract as well as any other implementing action until March of 2022. This period will afford the parties time to come together to see if they can reach an agreement outside of court regarding their stances on the Archie Creek Danger Tree Project.