"Let It Burn": Enviros Push for Return to Traditional Klamath Forest Management


Section burned in 2014 Happy Camp Fire. - KIMBERLY BAKER
  • Section burned in 2014 Happy Camp Fire.
Controversy over a proposed salvage logging operation in Klamath National Forest seems poised to leverage the National Forest Service into restoring historic stewardship rights to the Karuk tribe.

Environmental groups have accused the NFS of "fast-tracking" the Westside Fire Recovery Project, which was proposed in October 2014 as a response to massive summer wildfires across the national forest system and private lands. More than 183,000 acres burned in the 2014 Beaver Fire, Happy Camp Complex and Whites Fire. The draft environmental impact report for the project calls for 11,700 acres of salvage timber harvest and 654 miles of road maintenance that includes tree cutting, with replanting to follow. Upon approval, the harvest plans would be put out to be bid upon by commercial timber companies.

While the public comment period on the project has closed, the Environmental Protection Information Center and Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center are encouraging the Forest Service to accept what’s being called the “Karuk Alternative”, a draft plan put forth by the Karuk tribe that would reduce the total amount of acreage to be logged, eliminate replanting and integrate traditional prescriptive burning practices into long-term management of the region.

Craig Tucker, national resources policy advocate for the Karuk tribe, says Forest Service supervisors haven’t been in the region long enough to appreciate the impact of a century of cyclical burning, logging and even-age plantation planting.

“From the Karuks' perspective they feel like they’ve been occupied by the U.S. Forest Service. The Karuk are different from the Hupa and Yurok because they don’t have a reservation. The heart of Karuk aboriginal territory was being logged at the time the tribe was federally recognized.”

Tucker adds that the post-logging planting of conifers such as Douglas Firs has supplanted traditional mixed hardwood groves, impacting the ability of tribal members to harvest acorns and gather other traditional plants. Monoculture plantings also tend to burn hotter when fires arrive.

“It’s taken western science 100 years to prove what the tribes already knew," Tucker says. "Prescribed burning makes forests healthier. We think the only way to manage forests appropriately.”

He adds that the approval of environmental groups that have been traditionally completely anti-logging is an encouraging step forward.

“It’s not always a natural fit for tribes and these groups to work together. There is kind of a difference in worldview and a checkered history. In this instance there’s a lot of agreement. These forests are really screwed up and we’re going to have to do some mechanical restoration.”

George Sexton, conservation director of Klamath-Siskyou Wildlands Center (K-S Wild), says his organization is welcoming “any science-based alternatives” to the Forest Service’s proposal. Sexton says his organization was gearing up to combat the harvest “before the smoke had even cleared.”

“The tribe is particularly well positioned to propose this because they’re uniquely informed by 10,000 years of cultural history in that region,” says Sexton. K-S Wild is one of many groups critical of the acreage proposed in the draft environmental impact report, accusing the Forest Service of “hiding the ball” when it comes to total amount of acreage affected. The 650 miles of roadway scheduled to be cleared, he says, could easily add up to an additional 6,000 acres of harvest.

“We’re looking for a compromise, we’re looking for science based management but the Forest Service keeps giving us the finger and saying they’re going to clearcut no matter what.”

Deputy District Ranger Andrew Skowlund, co-team lead on the Westside Project, calls the numbers being put forth by environmental groups “troubling.”

“I would encourage folks to focus on what the document says instead of third-hand accounts,” says Skowlund, adding that the project's ultimate goals are to “reduce hazardous fuels across landscape and communities, reduce safety hazards for workers and public and obtain the maximum value of timber by salvaging while still marketable.”

Kimberly Baker, a public lands advocate with the Environmental Information Protection Center, says her group certainly wouldn’t “sit idly by,” if the proposal moved forward as-is.

“This part of the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion is one of the most wild and rugged regions in California. All of the waterways in the proposed project are listed as impaired under the California Clean Water act,” she says, adding that portions of the affected area would be visible from the Pacific Crest Trail. EPIC is backing the Karuk Alternative, with some tweaks. The group would like to see an additional buffer around a Carolina Creek eagle’s nest, for example.

Russell “Buster” Attebery, council chairman of the Karuk tribe, says that there has been some “very productive” government-to-government communication around the issue. He says that the tribe hopes to avoid “outside interferences in the way of litigation.”

“The tribe tries to be stewards of the forest, and most of the outside environmental agencies understand that.”

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