A prominent timber family’s bid to purchase state forest land in Oregon is hitting a nerve with environmentalists who say it could lead to logging on the habitat of species protected by state and federal laws.
The Seneca Jones Timber Co. has submitted a bid on a 788-acre parcel of Elliott State Forest in the Oregon Coast Range northeast of Coos Bay. The parcel was put up for sale by the Oregon Department of State Lands.
The East Hakki Ridge parcel that Seneca Jones Timber bid on is one of three parcels of the Elliott State Forest being put up for sale by Oregon. They total 1,453 acres. The Oregon Department of State Lands says it's received five bids in all.
Conservation groups say sensitive habitat on the Elliott State Forest receives environmental protection as public lands — but that wildlife and their habitat will be at greater risk if the timberlands become private.
Cascadia Wildlands Conservation Director Francis Eatherington said the parcel of coastal forest shouldn’t be sold off.
“It’s some rare forest that has never been logged before. These are our old coastal forests, which is why there are species that depend on these forests and can live nowhere else,” she said.
Although little true old growth remains in the Elliott, about half the forest is between 120 and 140 years old. It is home to 63 species of birds, including endangered spotted owls and marbled murrelets. The forest is also habitat for listed coastal coho salmon.
Eatherington said she’s particularly worried that clearcut logging will take out large sections of what had been public forestland if it's acquired by Seneca Jones Timber.
“They can clearcut their own private lands however they want – but these are our public forests,” Eatherington said. “What Seneca Jones does is they clearcut their forests. “
Kathy Jones and her two sisters co-own the Seneca Jones Timber Co. She freely acknowledged that clearcuts would take place.
“Clearcutting mimics nature,” Jones said in an interview. “If these lands are awarded to us, and we maintain them as we do all of our private timberlands, we will be clearcutting and replanting Douglas fir.”
Jones said clearcutting is the optimum way to grow Douglas fir trees. “Doug fir do not grow well in partial shade – so to thin, or to do partial cuts, doesn’t work well,” she added.
Jones’ positive characterization of clearcutting rubs many Northwest residents wrong. Among them are environmental advocates who say tree plantations of Douglas fir trees are no substitute for the native forests when it comes to protecting water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity.
Among those advocates are environmental activists who have threatened legal action and civil disobedience.
In a statement, the Cascadia Forest Defenders – known for such actions as tree-sitting protests – wrote that “the winners of these parcels will have much more than just ‘treehuggers' to deal with. We will not respect new property lines, signs and gates. We will not respect a company that further degrades the integrity of Oregon’s fragmented coast.”
Jones disputed environmentalists' claims that the Elliott State Forest provides critical habitat for certain protected species.
“What we’ve been told is that the murrelet hasn’t been sighted on these lands and that’s why [Governor John] Kitzhaber chose to put them up for sale,” she said.
But Eatherington said the state’s appraisal of the East Hakki Ridge parcel shows that further information is needed.
East Hakki Ridge hasn’t been officially surveyed to determine if protected murrelets nest there. But a 2013 timber appraisal conducted for the state concluded the parcel is suitable murrelet habitat – and a state biologist puts the likelihood of the bird’s presence there at 50 percent.
According to a 2013 timber appraisal for the state, Kevin Maurice, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, said logging in a stand with suitable murrelet habitat violates environmental laws unless a survey indicates that the seabirds do not live there. In the same document Maurice said the USFWS often does not pursue violators, even when the agency is aware of a violation. (Maurice declined to be interviewed for this report.)
The possible presence of murrelets also influenced the property’s appraised value. Forest stands likely to be inhabited by marbled murrelets are heavily discounted, even if logging on those stands appears unlikely to bring the threat of enforcement.
“We’re very upset that the state is participating in this whole scam of selling our state forests, our public forests, for pennies on the dollar to the timber industry,” Eatherington said. “The timber industry has their own lands that they can clearcut but they want to make sure they can clearcut these public forests, too.”
Oregon Department of State Lands spokeswoman Julie Curtis said environmental regulations will still apply if the parcel's ownership shifts from public to private ownership.
“If the winning bidder decides to do timber harvests then they have to comply with the law,” she said.
Kathy Jones downplayed the significance of whether or not murrelets or spotted owls are present in the parcel her company wants to log. She questioned whether these species' populations are low enough to even warrant endangered or threatened species status.
“This is why my sisters and I decided to come out with this bid, because it is a platform that brings this to light, that allows us to speak about the misinformation, the distortions, and the virtual lies that continue to be perpetrated by the environmental community about these endangered species, because they are not endangered in the least,” Jones said.
Eatherington said her group looked for other conservation groups to help make a bid on East Hakki Ridge, but it couldn’t find the necessary funds in time.
In the shorter term, bidders expect to learn the timber sale results in coming days. And both sides say they’re gearing up for whatever conflicts may ensue.
The state is seeking $1.82 million for East Hakki Ridge.