Conservationists have expressed outrage over a proposed access road to be constructed on public land in the forested Susan Creek area east of Roseburg.
But according to Roseburg-based Lone Rock Timber Management Company, the road is a legal way to allow the company to access 40 acres of its own timberland.
For Francis Eatherington, Umpqua regional advisor for conservation group Cascadia Wildlands, the prospect of cutting down old-growth trees on the proposed road makes her upset.
“It’s very rare to find old-growth forests like this, and it’s going to be cut down for a senseless road,” she said.
Lone Rock CEO Toby Luther said a few large trees will need to be cut in order to gain access to the company’s property, and Lone Rock staff worked with the Bureau of Land Management to design a road that leaves the least amount of impact to resources.
Eatherington said many bird species, including the endangered northern spotted owl, are nesting in the area this time of year.
“If they go in and cut these trees down, those baby birds won’t be able to fly away. They’ll be splattered on the ground,” she said.
According to Luther, more than just wildlife resources need to be taken into account for any road project.
“The conservation groups are sensationalizing this issue by focusing on the few large trees in the road project, whereas responsible forest management companies are concerned with the resources of the entire forest landscape like soils, hydrology, fisheries and botany,” Luther said.
Land ownership in Western Oregon is divided into a checkerboard-like pattern, where one square on the board could be public and the one next to it could be privately-owned. If a timber company wants to access the “square” it owns, it has to cross through a different square to get there.
That’s why Lone Rock and the BLM say they adhere to the O&C Logging Road Right-of-Way Agreement set up in the 1960s to allow landowners this type of access. In this case, Lone Rock plans to begin logging trees to construct a 1,440-foot-long road through the Swiftwater area managed by the BLM, in order to start a logging project on its own land.
Barbara Machado, the BLM Swiftwater field manager, said the right-of-way framework is a key component in being able to effectively access and manage both public and private forestlands in the checkerboard.
“It is important that the BLM upholds the legal rights of adjacent landowners to access their lands according to the agreements that are in place, as we expect private to provide access for the management of public lands in the O&C,” Machado said.
Cheyne Rossbach, a spokesman for the Roseburg BLM, said Lone Rock will need to pay the BLM fair market value for the timber it logs to make way for the road. Luther said the BLM will follow the same process and procedures in determining the volume and value of the timber that it does with other timber sales.
Eatherington said she questioned if the price will really be fair, as it will be negotiated without the public’s knowledge.
Building the road
Plans for the proposed road will include an area for trucks to turn around.
“The road starts from an area where two to three roads meet, where trucks could turn around,” Eatherington said. “That adds to the appearance that this is just a timber grab and not necessary for Lone Rock Timber to access their unit.”
Joseph Patrick Quinn of Camas Valley, the vice president of conservation group Umpqua Watersheds, added he expects Lone Rock to extract much more in terms of timber value from the road and truck turnaround than it will from the timberland the company is trying to access.
Luther said his company’s business model does not include buying federal timber when it can avoid it, as it no longer operates a mill.
Quinn said he thinks there is a lack of transparency regarding the proposed logging.
Quinn said it doesn’t make any sense why the BLM would allow Lone Rock to log a number of very large, precious trees during owl nesting season, and he said the road is unnecessarily wide.
According to the Luther, the road construction engineering and procedures follow the best available science and management practices to minimize impacts to the forest’s ecosystem, and to minimize soil erosion, degradation to water quality and other resources.
“The clearing limits, which define the trees that need to be cut in order to construct the road, are as narrow as possible to build a safe and stable road,” Luther said. “This is the same practice we apply to any road construction project.”
The right-of-way agreement allows BLM staff to survey the proposed road area to mark any trees they’re concerned about, or to provide recommendations to the road builders. While the review contains no concerns regarding archeology, botany, fisheries, fuels, hydrology or recreation, the BLM did note some concerns about wildlife.
The BLM's review suggested that in order to avoid removing suitable habitat structures and/or nest trees for the spotted owl, Lone Rock should avoid logging large trees with broken tops, cavities, large limbs or nest platforms. It also recommended the company leave behind large snags or large downed wood for habitat, and flagged three Douglas firs with pink “wildlife” flagging, indicating they should not be cut.
The review also recommended the company implement seasonal restrictions during the owls’ breeding season from March 1 to Sept. 30. Rossbach said Lone Rock can begin construction at any time during the dry season, May 15 to Oct. 15, but it was allowed to start as early as this week.
Luther said the trees marked by the BLM wildlife biologist contain no current or previous nest for any species of concern. He declined to say when the company will begin logging and road construction, due to what he said is the conservation groups’ “past behavior of tree sitting, vandalizing equipment or driving spikes in trees with the intention of hurting people.”
Eatherington said she talked with a representative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who told her private timber companies are legally required to consult with the service when they impact spotted owl habitat, but the agency does not enforce that requirement. She said when she asked him to enforce it this time, the representative replied he would discuss it at a meeting in Portland on Monday.
Quinn said he doesn’t think the right-of-way agreement should trump the Endangered Species Act and other protections for species like the spotted owl.
“We have judicial evidence the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared the 1872 Mining Act, for example, does not trump the Endangered Species Act,” Quinn said.
Rossbach said the road construction is a non-discretionary action, meaning the BLM is very limited in what it can object to when a landowner wants to build a road.
According to the agreement, approved by the federal government on March 30, 1966, the BLM may object to the proposed construction only if it is not the most direct route to the landowner’s property, the road would interfere with existing facilities or improvements, or create excessive erosion.
“We determined none of those three fit in this situation, so that’s where Lone Rock gets the clearance to go ahead with that road segment,” Rossbach said.
Other reciprocal right-of-way agreements may include the option for other objections, such as “an existing road is available and suitable for removal of timber tributary to the proposed road,” or if the construction “may affect a species listed as ‘threatened or endangered’ under the Endangered Species Act,” but this particular agreement does not include those options.
Christopher Pond of Dillard created a Facebook page called Rare Old Growth Public Forests Threatened By BLM, which shows photos of old growth trees in the proposed area.
Pond said he created the page because he believes what BLM and Lone Rock are doing is brazen.
“Lone Rock could easily cut the patch they desire to cut with men and chainsaws, but they require this road through BLM to specifically allow one machine to do all the work,” Pond said. “That’s less jobs and more profit.”
“Your public lands are being handed away behind closed doors without your say so, and regardless of protest,” a post on the Facebook page reads.
Luther said the page uses deceptive statements and half-truths to elicit strong emotional responses from the public.
“In this case they claim that BLM has embarked on a ‘back-room deal with Lone Rock Timber to log ancient forests,’ when the truth of the matter is that Lone Rock Timber has the legal right under our reciprocal right-of-way agreement with the BLM to construct the road to gain access to our property,” Luther said, adding some of the trees in the posted photos are outside of the proposed logging area.
In response to claims that the road will run through the center of an old-grove grove, Luther said the road is designed to avoid large trees where possible, and the surrounding forest contains hundreds of other trees of similar types and sizes.