The harvest in the Thorn salvage sale proposed for this fall could be greatly reduced due to concerns raised in the review of the draft environmental impact statement (EIS).
Malheur National Forest Supervisor Stan Benes confirmed recently that his office is evaluating the concerns and may need to reduce the area of the sale.
The Thorn Fire Salvage Recovery Project is proposed for a portion of the land scorched in last summer's Shake Table Fire, about 20 miles southwest of John Day.
The fire burned over 14,000 acres, but the sale was confined to a smaller area. The Forest Service proposes to salvage timber by helicopter on 3,411 acres and by ground-based yarding on another 496 acres.
Recognizing the legal challenges that can delay salvage sales, Benes last year decided to call in a Forest Service "enterprise team" to draft a plan for the project. The team is a collection of specialists from across the West who pool their expertise in various areas to draft such projects, allowing the local staff to continue its work on other projects.
The team effort produced a draft EIS that Benes had hoped would pass muster in the review process that began in June. Plans called for harvest to begin about September.
However, internal specialist reviews identified two areas of concern in the draft. The issues that raised concern are:
? Snags for woodpecker habitat. The plan specifically addresses habitat for the three-toed black-backed woodpecker, but Benes said new concerns have been raised about two additional species of woodpeckers, including the Lewis' woodpecker which requires fire-killed large pine trees in its habitat.
? Work proposed in areas that have roadless characteristics. Benes said the team hoped to avoid such objections by skirting officially-designated roadless areas and emphasizing helicopter logging for most of the acres that were earmarked for harvest. However, the agency's review has produced questions about lands that have "similar characteristics" even if they are not officially designated for roadless-area protection.
Benes said it was disappointing to see such issues raised at this point.
"We thought we did a really good job of balancing ecological, economic and social concerns," Benes said of the draft. "We did our homework. But that's what drafts are, to ferret out the concerns."
The news came as a disappointment for others in the community.
Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton told the Grant County Court in a recent meeting that he was "furious" about the setback.
However, he also said he had faith in Benes' interest in helping get the local community back to work in the woods.
"He really wants to do what we want to do," Britton said.
Ted Ferrioli, Grant County's state senator and a representative of Malheur Lumber Co., said the objections should have been raised "in the scoping process," not at this point. The timing not only dashes the county's hopes, but also seems to encourage litigation that could stall the project.
He worried that the timber would lose too much value to be viable if the project were to be delayed past this year.
However, Benes remains optimistic that the project options can be revised so that work can still begin this fall on a portion of the sale area.
"It's not inconceivable that we would go ahead with the original plan," he said. He hopes to adjust the preferred alternative for the project to address the concerns raised in the comment period.
As originally proposed, the project would produce 40 million board feet of timber. Revisions could reduce that by anywhere from 20 to 75 percent, he said.
The planning team is looking into the concerns and the comments from the public, Benes said. In addition, he said the regional office has sent staff to assist with that process - help he said was appreciated.
"We're all working together," he said.