If you value the forests and watersheds of Southern Oregon, flying in or out of Medford can be a depressing experience: With a few notable exceptions, the landscape looks like a patchwork quilt of clearcuts and logging roads.

If you value the forests and watersheds of Southern Oregon, flying in or out of Medford can be a depressing experience: With a few notable exceptions, the landscape looks like a patchwork quilt of clearcuts and logging roads.

Nearly all of the private industrial timberlands in the area have been clearcut and are now managed as short-rotation fiber plantations, large portions of the BLM public lands were also converted from native forest into tree farms during the boom years of logging, and behind the scenic "viewsheds" along the route to Crater Lake, great swaths of old clearcuts define many of the Forest Service public lands in the Upper Rogue.

Crater Lake wildlands

The intact native forests that blanket Crater Lake National Park and the headwaters of the Rogue River are a stark contrast to the fragmented, logged and roaded mountains that dominate much of the landscape. A few groves of ancient forest extend out of the west side of the National Park along Foster, Bybee and Castle Creek as they enter the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and flow into the Upper Rogue River. These intact ancient forests on the edge of the park make up a significant portion of the controversial Bybee timber sale.

Logging our heritage

In order to reach some of the last, best remaining wildlands and ancient forests along these headwater streams, the Forest Service is proposing to build 13 miles of new logging roads near the park border across streamside forest reserves and through high quality wildlife habitat. Ancient Douglas fir trees up to 4 feet in diameter and older than our nation would be logged in order to convert even more of the landscape into dense young fiber plantations. More than 600 acres would be logged in streamside lands proposed by past Forest Service officials as a scenic corridor for beautiful Castle Creek near the park border.

Harming forest health

While some timber industry advocates point to a "forest health" rationale to support their desire to log right up to the park boundary, the Environmental Assessment produced by the Forest Service paints a clear picture of the real consequences of logging these public lands. Page 53 of the EA indicates that large trees in the primary shade zone of streams will be removed. Page 69 indicates that logging old-growth trees in "shelterwood" logging units will harm wildlife habitat, soils and the young understory of emerging trees. Page 96 acknowledges that the location of logging road construction will increase sediment and turbidity in mountain streams. Page 114 anticipates "detrimental soil damage" from 355 acres from ground-based tractor yarding on the forest floor. Page 149 discloses that habitat critical to the survival and recovery of the spotted owl will be logged. Page 160 indicates that the wilderness value of over 1,000 acres of park-side backcountry stands will be destroyed.

Clearly, the aggressive logging and road construction in these headwater ancient forests are activities that harm, rather than help, forest health. Perhaps worst of all, the Forest Service proposal to conduct "gap creation" logging in old-growth forests will create young tree plantations that greatly contribute to fire hazard. We know from decades of fire behavior on the west slope of the Cascade Mountains that when a wildfire occurs, dense young plantations tend to burn with stand replacing intensity while old-growth forests tend to have more moderate fire behavior. The "forest health" arguments for logging ancient forests is a smoke screen that does a disservice to the firefighters that are put into harm's way every summer.

A better way

What makes the Bybee old-growth timber sale all the more baffling is that for the past several years the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest has been successfully working with stakeholders to bring communities together to design small-diameter logging projects that have produced a large wave of timber volume. In recent years the Rustler, Big Butte Springs and Coastal Healthy Forest small-diameter timber sales have received almost universal praise while sending over 200 million board feet of timber to local mills.

The Forest Service proposal to dive back into the old-growth wars and throw away years of collaboration came as a shock to many of us. Why target wilderness-quality ancient forests on the boundary of a beloved national park for logging instead of thinning existing fiber plantations and fire-suppressed stands near to communities and homes? Why smash the growing consensus that public lands logging should focus on making forests, watersheds and communities more resilient?

It's not too late to change course. Let's step back from the brink and continue to build on the collaborative success stories that were producing small-diameter timber sales while also respecting the values that many Americans find in our last wildlands and ancient forests.

George Sexton is the conservation director for the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.