WildEarth Guardians

A Force for Nature

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Protecting big trees is one of the most important things we can do to fight climate change. And it should be one of the easiest. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t gotten the message.

Please speak up for the climate by asking President Biden to preserve the remaining big trees across 11,000 square miles of six national forests in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.

Photo by Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project.

These trees were protected from logging for the past 25 years by a set of rules called the Eastside Screens. But on the last day of the Trump administration, the Forest Service rewrote one of those rules to give itself license to log big trees greater than 21 inches in diameter on the Deschutes, Fremont-Winema, Malheur, Ochoco, Umatilla, and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.

The Forest Service’s position is now contrary to President Biden’s instructions to safeguard the nation’s mature forests, as well as to studies demonstrating the critical role big trees play in fighting the worst impacts of climate change.

The rule barring the cutting of big trees in eastern Oregon and southeastern Washington must be reinstated, so act now.

On Earth Day, Biden issued an executive order instructing the federal government to enlist Nature in the fight against climate change. The order highlighted the critical role that mature and old forests on public lands play in combating the global climate and biodiversity crises. The president’s order noted America’s forests absorb more than 10 percent of the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions and directed the Forest Service to manage the nation’s forests to retain and enhance carbon storage as well as protect biodiversity.

President Biden’s order is firmly grounded in science. A global study of 48 forests of all types found that among forests with trees of different age classes, the 1 percent largest diameter trees held half the living aboveground carbon. A study of Oregon forests found trees greater than 21 inches in diameter made up just 3 percent of the total number of trees in those forests, yet held 43 percent of their total aboveground carbon. And the idea that logging a forest can preserve carbon—in lumber and other wood products—that would be lost to wildfire has been debunked.

For almost a year and a half Guardians and our partners have been asking the Forest Service to restore the Eastside Screens rule that had protected big trees. On June 14, because the agency has begun approving timber sales that will log big trees in eastern Oregon, we were forced to go to court to get the Trump rewrite thrown out. But there’s still time for the Forest Service to do the right thing and comply with President Biden’s Earth Day executive order by restoring the original Eastside Screens rule.

Speak up for the trees and tell the Biden administration to restore the Eastside Screens rule to protect big trees and fight climate change.

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The fires burning through northern New Mexico this past month redefine what we consider a normal spring. Pushed by relentless high winds and exacerbated by an ongoing, 20-plus-year megadrought linked to the human-induced climate crisis, these wildfires have shocked and alarmed us all. As fires continue to burn, people want action to keep their homes and loved ones safe. They also look at the surrounding landscape and know it will never be the same again, at least not in their lifetime and perhaps not ever, given that the climate crisis is redefining what is normal. The resulting fear and sadness are understandable, as is the desire for something to be done.

That is why WildEarth Guardians fully supports what fire scientists and researchers have been saying for decades: by taking common-sense actions within the “Home Ignition Zone”—the home and everything around it, up to 100 feet from the foundation—we can save homes and lives and protect firefighters and emergency responders. These are all compelling reasons to focus resources on home and community protection.

Sadly, that is not the direction Congress and the Biden administration emphasize. Instead, when President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law late last year, it included billions of dollars and new authorities aimed at cutting down trees across vast landscapes with the implication that doing so will keep people safe.

Then in January, the U.S. Forest Service released its new 10-year strategy emphasizing timber harvest and other mechanical “treatments,” along with controlled burning, to reduce severe wildfire risks. While the agency never says its actions will prevent wildfires, officials often claim that thinning and creating large clearings (clearcuts) will reduce the hottest and most severe fires and return forests to “normal” conditions.

Many people, who are rightly fearful of the flames, readily accept the Forest Service’s promises and implications that, given enough leeway, it will protect their homes and communities. But this is far from reality. Even in cases where the agency can affect fire behavior, its actions will never overcome the extreme drought, record high temperatures, and strong winds that drive the most severe wildfires.

As the climate crisis continues to create conditions that alter fire behavior and extend the wildfire season, some assert it is our responsibility to put it right by manipulating entire landscapes with chainsaws, roads, and heavy equipment, and only allowing carefully managed fires to burn, if at all. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Decades of ecosystem manipulation, public land exploitation, and aggressive wildfire suppression, coupled with rampant development in forest communities, combine to exacerbate the harm caused by the climate crisis. But the answer is not doing more of the same.

That is why WildEarth Guardians is releasing our official wildfire position, which calls for a major shift in national policy that emphasizes protecting homes and communities while recognizing the crucial ecosystem benefits that fire provides. Rather than give the Forest Service a blank check for broadscale logging, the focus needs to be on helping people adapt to living with, and recovering from, wildfires.

In our wildfire position, we recognize that:

  • Wildfire is a unique, essential, and natural process.

    Example of “fuel reduction” on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana from a “restoration” project. Photo: Chad Harder.

  • Wildfires of mixed intensities help maintain ecosystem integrity and diversity of natural habitats across vast landscapes.
  • Wildfire regimes across the American West are diverse and ecosystem dependent, making management acutely nuanced.
  • Natural ecosystems are uniquely adapted to and require fire for self-maintenance. We cannot effectively mimic or replicate the benefits fire provides.
  • Intervention with logging and aggressive fire suppression (especially when fires are not threatening homes) often damages the wild places we seek to protect or restore.
  • We must work with fire and ensure it can serve its proper ecological role to the greatest extent possible.

Ultimately, we cannot continue trying to dominate and control nature, especially under the guise of “restoring” the forests. Certainly we can, and must, heal the damage from past mismanagement by removing roads, improving stream habitat, cleaning up abandoned mines, and implementing other true restoration actions. But the promotion of landscape manipulation relies on the false belief that government agencies not only can mimic, but can replace Mother Nature through perpetual management. This represents the kind of hubris that created the conditions we see today. It is not a solution but the underpinning of greater disaster.

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Guardians is a proud supporter of the inaugural Healthy Public Lands Conference, which will be held June 1-3 in Salt Lake City, Utah. The conference will offer opportunities to learn more about the current state of public lands in the American West; better understand the laws, regulations, and policies that guide public lands management; and contribute to a collective vision for managing public lands that prioritizes healthy watersheds and ecosystems rather than livestock production.

A partial list of panel topics for the first two days of the conference include Indigenous perspectives on public lands and traditional ecological knowledge, recent science on the impacts of grazing to western ecosystems, the ongoing aridification or “great drying” of the interior West that is happening because of climate change, and the connection between public lands extremists and the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Keynote speakers and panelists are still being finalized, so stay tuned.

There will also be experiential learning, with the third day of the conference devoted to a field trip to a public lands grazing allotment. Attendees will learn how to quantitatively assess the health of public lands with active grazing allotments, how to report those findings to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service staff, and how to best participate in federal land management decision-making.

Conference sponsors want this event to be available to everyone and are offering sliding scale registration rates. To learn more and to register, click here.

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Bull trout will have cleaner, colder water. Grizzly bears will have more secure and connected habitat. Elk and bighorn sheep will have larger areas to roam. Unneeded logging roads will be removed and hiking trails will be repaired.

This is the reality now that the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails program is permanent, and funded.

Deep within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, just signed into law by President Biden, sits Section 40801—Establishing and funding the Legacy Roads and Trails program. This is a huge win in our decades-long drive to protect and restore national forest lands and waters.

Your support has led to this victory, and your continued generosity will ensure that we’re able to leverage the Legacy Roads and Trails program to benefit clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and communities throughout the American West.

For years, Guardians has shone a light on the scars from decades of extractive (ab)use across millions of acres of the National Forest System—where over 370,000 miles of roads block fish from migrating to spawning grounds, slice critical habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and Sonoran desert tortoise into pieces, and muddy drinking water for countless communities.

The Trump administration eliminated all funding for this successful and popular program, but we persisted because national forests roads have over $3.2 billion in unfulfilled maintenance and restoration needs, meaning that roads can easily crumble into creeks with any passing storm.

Thanks to our hard work, now $250 million over 5 years will flow into the Legacy Roads and Trails program to support projects such as fixing roads and trails to withstand more intense storms, decommissioning obsolete roads to rewild wildlife habitat, and removing or improving culverts under roads to allow fish passage. These are highly effective actions that improve climate resiliency and fix the harm from decades of damage.

Roads are like a dagger piecing the heart of wild places, so we are incredibly grateful to thousands of you who took action over the past year to drive Congress to permanently authorize and fund this crucial program. But we aren’t done yet.

Your continued support today will help us achieve our Rewilding vision.

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Last month, Oregon’s Cougar dam and Foster dam began releasing water to help young Chinook salmon and steelhead on their downstream migration to the ocean. This month, Detroit dam is under court-order to make changes, too.

These are just a few of the many positive actions that are happening on the Willamette River thanks to Guardians and our allies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) operates 13 dams in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the dams are the primary reason why Chinook salmon and winter steelhead are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Instead of doing the required measures to protect fish, the Corps delayed, delayed, and delayed. Then we took action.

In 2018, WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, and Advocates for the West took the Corps to court. Two years later, the judge ruled in our favor condemning the Corps’ inaction on vital measures, which resulted in significant harm to Upper Willamette Chinook salmon and steelhead—in violation of the ESA.

This September, the Judge released a strongly worded order outlining a list of actions that require changing operations at multiple dams to prioritize fish passage and improve water quality. Several actions began almost immediately with more happening over the next few months.

Beginning this month, water will be released at Detroit dam through outlets (not turbines) at night to help young fish migrate downstream. Water will also be released from lower outlets to access cold water to improve temperatures down river. This is just one of the many actions required because of our lawsuit victory to ensure native fish and ecosystems thrive.

Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible, and your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.

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This year’s wildfire season is well underway, not just in the Southwest where extreme temperatures and mega-drought continue to bake the region, but also in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, which are under a record-shattering June heat wave. How oppressive has the heat been? It was 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon on June 28. Clearly, the climate crisis continues to redefine our new normal as the American West struggles with the worst drought in 1,200 years and wildfires burn at unprecedented levels.

Researchers from the Universities of Montana and Wyoming recently published findings that show wildfires are burning more high-elevation forests now than at any time over the last 2,000 years. Couple this with the fact that humans cause between 80-90 percent of wildfires, and the logical conclusion is that we urgently need to protect forests and stop burning fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber industry proponents claim that wildfires can be—and must be—stopped by more logging. The tired refrain goes that fires won’t burn if we just suspend environmental safeguards and allow tree “thinning” and associated road construction across vast landscapes. Of course, fires do not burn without fuel and decades of fire suppression have prevented fire from playing its natural role, in some ecosystems more than others. However, despite the scary images and rhetoric, most fires have a range of severity leaving some patches entirely unburned, or burned at low to moderate intensity. Fire plays a crucial role in providing habitat for species that rely on burned areas, and most forests need fire to regenerate— even high severity fire. In other words, wildfires—including high intensity fires—are an essential component of healthy forest ecosystems.

Ignoring these facts and well-established science, some lawmakers are once again pushing bad logging bills. But after the massive 2020 fire season, calls for landscape-scale thinning were quickly refuted. The retired Dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana explained, “all the forest management in the world won’t stop forests from burning at higher levels unless we turn down the heat.”

Of course, communities adjacent to forested areas need real solutions to help protect their homes, solutions based in facts and science, not rhetoric and fear mongering. Yet, instead of keeping the focus on community protection and the immediate area around homes, bills and policies that purport to “restore” landscapes by logging and thinning remote areas on America’s public lands do little except give property owners a false sense of security.

The science is clear that the best way to protect public safety and communities in fire-prone forested areas is to focus on the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), which is home and the immediate area extending 100 to 200 feet around structures. The National Fire Protection Association explains that following its guidelines within this zone will “interrupt the fire pathway and keep flames small, which creates a defensible space to help slow or stop the fire from spreading.” As the preeminent fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen recently explained “ignition resistant communities based on the collective HIZs effectively address wildland-urban fire as a home ignition problem.”

Instead of playing politics and stoking public fear, federal and state agencies must work with property owners and communities to take these simple, yet effective, steps. And lawmakers must provide the authority and funding to do so.

The best way to manage wildfires is allowing them to play their natural ecological role wherever possible, and to promote true restoration that creates larger tracts of intact forests by removing unneeded roads. At the same time, lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber proponents need to stop promoting logging and thinning as a means to control wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, and similarly, we cannot fire-proof forests. Only by taking bold action to address the climate crisis will the situation improve, and in the meantime, forests are going to burn as they adapt to hotter and drier conditions, which is why we need more ignition resistant communities and fewer opportunities for people to inadvertently start wildfires.

The concept of the Home Ignition Zone was developed by retired USDA Forest Service fire scientist Jack Cohen in the late 1990s, following some breakthrough experimental research into how homes ignite due to the effects of radiant heat. The HIZ is divided into three zones. Graphic and caption by National Fire Protection Association.

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Ghost Roads. This term conjures images of a terrified Ichabod Crane slowly moving down a dark, frightening forest road on a trembling horse, waiting for the headless horseman to jump out of the shadows and lop off his head. After working this past spring semester as an intern for WildEarth Guardians I learned a lot about ghost roads, and other types of roads, that weave and wind through national forests. Even though these roads are not haunted by ghouls and goblins, a road that is abandoned, partially treated, or not maintained is very scary.

Ghost roads originate from old logging and mining roads, temporary roads constructed during U.S. Forest Service projects that were not removed after completion, or were illegally created through repeated use. They are not recognized or recorded in Forest Service databases, yet these apparitions still haunt the landscape. Ghost roads retain the potential for severe ecological impacts, particularly in post-wildfire settings. Leaving them on the landscape increases the likelihood of continued environmental impairment, negatively impacting water quality and wildlife habitats. Roads can also exacerbate the effects from wildfires and can make post-wildfire consequences worse, cause wildfires to occur more often, and amplify the magnitude of fire events.

Per the U.S. Forest Service manual, unneeded roads should be decommissioned to a more natural state to protect and enhance National Forest System lands. However, rarely will the agency fully remove the entire road length by recontouring it back to the original slope, leaving these roads on site in varying unnatural conditions.

During my internship I discovered humans have used and abused the forests leaving behind a mosaic of roads zig zagging and scarring mountainsides. Even though the Forest Service faces funding and staffing challenges, they should be identifying these roads and, if appropriate, recontouring them back to a more natural condition. The agency may suggest this occurs in other processes, such as during Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) activities; however, my research with Guardians proved this to be false. The BAER team admirably performs their post-fire emergency mitigation duties, but they are not actually remediating ghost roads.

My dad worked in the wood products industry most of his life. As a young man he hauled logs for a living and later wood chips from mills in western Montana to particleboard processing centers in Missoula. Even though he relied on the forest to support his family, he also believed in forest conservation and sustainability, although he never used those two words. He supported forest preservation for jobs and recreation. Growing up I spent many summers on Noxon Reservoir were my dad taught me to appreciate the land and treat it with respect so generations after can treasure and learn to love the forest like we did.

Dad passed away in 2017 but if he were here today and I could recite the ghostlore of these roads, he would agree 100 percent they need to be removed. Working with WildEarth Guardians resonated with me because it is what my dad instilled in all his daughters. My favorite place to be is in the deep green shadows of ponderosa pines and Douglas fir and to get there I need a road. But unused roads need to be recontoured to prevent the damage they cause after wildfires, prevent future wildfires, and help restore the watershed. We need to respect the forest and heal the past wounds from resource extraction and human made infrastructure by exorcising ghost roads from the landscape, preserving the forest for wildlife, fish, and future generations.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the U.S. Forest Service to focus on rewilding, not more roadbuilding.

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Standing next to a classic old-school U.S. Forest Service sign on a sunny early June day, Representative Kim Schrier (WA-08) spoke passionately about national forests and the need to restore lands and waters. While her words occasionally were impacted by noisy cars passing on a nearby road, she was speaking about other roads—the maze of Forest Service roads that impact how wildlife use forests, how fish use streams, and how people access trailheads. Just in Washington State, the “legacy” of a century of unconstrained logging, grazing, and mining has left over 20,000 miles of forest roads—enough to drive from Seattle to D.C. eight times. Nationally, there are over 370,000 miles of roads on National Forest System lands. Doesn’t that seem like too much?

Most people agree. And there is a simple solution—fix the forest roads we use and rewild the ones we don’t. Fund maintenance budgets for roads to campgrounds and trailheads. Fund Legacy Roads and Trails budgets to reconnect wildlife habitat, reestablish soils to infiltrate water and sprout new seedlings, and remove old barriers in rivers and streams.

The group quickly left the noisy roadway and headed into the woods for the day’s highlight: a short hike in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Gathering next to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River at the trailhead, the immediate commentary was about the giant potholes and deep dips that folks navigated on the way. Federal Highways funding paid for paving of some of this access road but the Forest Service’s minimal roads budget means that less than 10% of their roads get any type of attention (maintenance) in any given year. Potholes get bigger and the problems also expand.

WildEarth Guardians and many allies, such as WA Trails Association, Mountains to Sound Greenway, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and more, showed up to hike and celebrate the outdoors but also continue to push solutions. Thanks to Representative Schrier, the Legacy Roads and Trails Act was introduced in Congress again this year. We are all working to ensure that as solutions to the climate crisis and crumbling infrastructure are hammered out in Congress, that Legacy Roads and Trails is part of the solution.

Please do your part and ask your members of Congress to fund Legacy Roads and Trails.

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January marks the 20-year anniversary of a U.S. Forest Service rule meant to rein in the agency’s vast, unsustainable network of roads, mostly dirt, and the serious environmental damage they cause. Commonly referred to as the “Roads Rule,” its purpose is to reduce, or right-size, the sprawling forest road system— a legacy of logging, grazing, mining and poorly-managed motorized recreation. After two decades, progress has been anemic overall. There are currently over 370,000 miles of roads on National Forest System lands and for most of the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service, the agency has yet to identify a minimum road system that it can afford to maintain and that is environmentally sustainable.

In our new report titled, A Dilapidated Web of Roads: The Forest Service’s Departure From a Sustainable Forest Road System, we provide an overview of the 2001 Roads Rule and its inconsistent application over the years. Our report also discusses relevant case law and concludes with a list of recommendations for achieving a sustainable forest road system.

The report is part of WildEarth Guardians’ continued support to our partners, colleagues, and activists working to improve the ecological integrity of National Forest System lands. It also follows our press release and action alert in recognition of the Roads Rule Anniversary and the need that remains to fully achieve a truly sustainable forest road system. Please add your name to our petition calling on the Biden-Harris administration to recommit to the goals of the Roads Rule and create a future where roads no longer muddy streams, harm fish and wildlife, and scar mountainsides.

On January 12, WildEarth Guardians joined 150 groups sending President-elect Joe Biden a Wildlife Recovery and Public Lands Restoration Economic Stimulus initiative, urging bold investments to stimulate the economy through the restoration of public lands, waters, and fish and wildlife habitat. Such investments will not only have the potential to put hundreds of thousands of people to work, but also to ensure more resilient ecosystems and communities throughout the United States.

The coalition called on the incoming Biden administration to establish and fund programs that focus on restoration rather than resource extraction and consumption, promote coordination and cooperation with local communities, and embody the principles of environmental justice. We also stressed that recovery programs should fully comply with all laws designed to safeguard the environment, workers and the public. To that end, we urged President-elect Biden to strengthen our bedrock environmental laws, including the restoration of critical protections under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

“In the midst of a pandemic, a recession, dual climate and extinction crises, and a racial reckoning, we have the opportunity to build back in a deliberately equitable and regenerative fashion. After four years of destruction, division, and extraction, this blueprint could put people to work doing the vital restoration that the communities, public lands, wildlife, and waterways desperately need and deserve,” said Sarah McMillian, WildEarth Guardians’ Conservation Director.

Learn more about the work WildEarth Guardians is doing to restore and rewild lands and waters.