On a warm and sunny Friday, July 17, eight people met outside the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Springfield.
With a freshly painted banner proclaiming “Save Thurston Hills” and holding signs like “Clearcuts=Wildfires,” protesters stood outside the U.S. National Guard Armory, where the BLM’s office is located. They waved as cars entered and exited the gates, and some protesters said they were hoping they’d see the agency’s local field manager, Becca Brooke, leaving.
Hours earlier, the federal agency said it was moving forward with a timber sale after publishing protest responses. The BLM says it has listened to community responses to the project also known as Pedal Power and has plans to mitigate increased logging traffic, slash pile burning and fire hazards.
But Eugene-based nonprofit conservation group Cascadia Wildlands says it will keep fighting the project because it poses a threat to neighbors.
At the July 17 Zoom press conference, Brooke said the logging roads are already built for Seneca timber, and it could start logging by mid-September. There are also 8.5 miles of new trails planned for as early as fall 2022, and the BLM will work with groups like the mountain biking Disciples of Dirt, as well as Springfield’s Willamalane Parks and Recreation District.
At the press conference, acting Northwest Oregon Manager David Howell said logging at Thurston Hills will take place on 109 of the 394 acres and will leave behind 15 percent of the trees. A BLM official added that new trees planted after logging could help the area have more mature standing trees that aren’t compromised by shadows of larger trees. The BLM calls it a regeneration harvest, but opponents call it a clearcut.
Brooke said that she granted one protest point: that the trees and limbs that had fallen from the 2019 snowstorm are not Seneca timber company’s property.
In granting the protest point, the agency will identify snags and downed wood created in the snowstorm, as well as any created up to May 18, 2020, and leave it on site. The agency will modify its timber sale contract with Seneca for the decrease in volume, according to the agency’s response.
Besides playing an important role for forest creatures and the ecosystem of the forest, the issue of whether Seneca owns the snags is a part of a larger problem, says Nick Cady, legal director of Cascadia Wildlands. Cady says that BLM granting that protest point exposes a fundamental flaw: that the federal agency didn’t actually reconsider its plans after U.S. District Judge Michael McShane remanded the case in 2019.
“When a court remands something back to the BLM, they have to fully reconsider it. They can’t just make a few changes and reauthorize it,” he says. “They believed that it was all legally Seneca Jones’ property, but now they admit that assumption was wrong.”
He adds that the BLM granting the protest point to those snags sheds light on a fundamental mistake that carries throughout the rest of the project.
Eugene Weekly met with BLM officials at the project site, which begins about less than a half mile from Highway 126. On the steep road up, you pass several houses.
While at the project site, Brooke says the agency will notify residents in the area when logging trucks will travel on the road, and although the logging process will be up to Seneca timber because it has one and a half years to do so, cutting down trees could be done in a one-shot period.
And the agency will exercise caution when conducting controlled burns because the area is smoke sensitive, says Eric Johnson is deputy fire staff officer for the Northwest Oregon Interagency Fire Management Organization. He says the agency will OK burning on a stormy day when the wind blows the smoke away from residents who live near the site.
But Cady says the BLM has a history of leaving slash burn piles with coverings for years that have become tattered as the agency waits for the ideal weather for burning. Because Pedal Power is so close to town, burning a slash pile can easily violate air quality standards, he adds.
“In an area like Thurston Hills where it’s right next to people’s property, there’s no room for error,” he says.
And there are still old slash piles from four to five years ago along Highway 58, where the right weather conditions for burning still haven’t happened, he says. Having these unburned slash piles then poses a fire risk, he adds.
Johnson says fires in the area near the Thurston Hills site are more likely to start from below, from neighbors mowing dry grass on a hot day to vehicles dragging chains on the highway. To curb the likelihood of fire, Johnson says Pedal Power neighbors should maintain their yards, clear their gutters, not do backyard burning and more.
Cady says the BLM is asking too much of neighbors of the project. Although minimizing fire threat is necessary when living in rural areas, residents who live near the Thurston Hills project live in an urban area.
Before Seneca can log the area, there is a 30-day period during which people can challenge the agency’s protest responses.
Cady says Cascadia Wildlands will file an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals. The board’s chief administrative judge, Jason Hill, was appointed this year by Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
The board has 45 days to issue a response, and if there is no response, Cady says the nonprofit will file a restraining order and federal lawsuit to try and stop the project.
“We’re going to do everything we can do to keep it from being logged,” Cady says.
This story has been updated