The Fate of Our Local Old Growth Forests: Of Voles, Logging, and Rural Oregon Communities

Members of the BFC (left to right): Sole’ Leonard, Mahogany Aulenbach, Reed Wilson, and Rana Foster. John Good (not pictured) was the first to ascend this tree. Photo by Mike Vernon.

Walking past River Jewelry on 2nd Street, you may notice something rather unusual for a jewelry store. Attached to the front door and covering much of the wall space throughout the shop are newspaper clippings and photographs of snowy mountains, lush rivers, and giant trees.

Store owner and local conservationist Reed Wilson is a member of the Benton Forest Coalition (BFC), a loose group of volunteers committed to protecting old growth forests on Oregon public lands.

The BFC, along with Cascadia Wildlands and Oregon Wild, are in the process of settling a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over a recent timber sale at the North Fork Overlook near Mary’s Peak. The groups are represented by attorneys Nicholas Cady of Cascadia Wildlands and Peter Frost of the Western Environmental Law Center.

In 1934 an extensive wildfire caused by a logging operation swept through the area. Although some salvage logging of large trees did occur, the forest has largely regenerated naturally.

According to Wilson, “The Bureau of Land Management recognized the essential nature of the habitat in the North Fork Overlook by establishing two marbled murrelet reserves and an older tree reserve within the sale area. Yet in the commercial harvest units we still located 121 old growth trees that survived the fire.”

Through the settlement process the groups are trying to secure buffers around many of the remaining large trees that were found to provide refuge for a secretive inhabitant of old growth forests.


Red tree vole. Photo by Nicholas Sobb.

Life in the Tree Tops

The red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) is a small, nocturnal rodent that makes its living in the canopy of older forests throughout western Oregon and northwest California. Tree voles spend most of their lives up in the treetops and persist almost exclusively on the needles of conifers.

Eric Forsman, a wildlife biologist for the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, describes the red tree vole as a unique and important species within forest communities.

“They are the only truly arboreal vole in the world,” Forsman said. “Their nests provide nesting, denning, and foraging habitat for many other animals, including salamanders, insects, shrews, squirrels, and woodrats. They are also important prey for many predators, including owls, jays, weasels, squirrels, and snakes.”

Due to their relatively low reproductive rates, limited dispersal ability, and narrow habitat requirements, the tree voles are sensitive to forest disturbance. Although they are not a state listed species they do receive some protection under the Northwest Forest Plan.

A 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report acknowledged that a federal listing of the northern population of the red tree vole is probably warranted. However, a lack of funding and backlog of work has prevented any official action.

Old-growth trees at North Fork Overlook. Photo by Mahogany Aulenbach.

As I walked through the soon-to-be-cut North Fork unit with members of the BFC, I noticed strips of flagging and shiny pieces of aluminum attached to the bases of large Douglas fir trees with notes like: “35.6m RTV in broken top 4/8/12.”

These messages refer to the location of red tree vole nests that were found by members of the BFC and an environmental group known as the Northwest Ecological Survey Team (NEST).

As the red tree vole eats the needles of Douglas fir trees it discards inedible filaments called resin ducts.

“We locate vole nests by looking for clumps of resin ducts, layers of fecal pellets, and cuttings which they harvest and bring back to the nest for consumption,” said Wilson.

Using a compound bow to launch fishing line over sturdy boughs, tree climbers set ropes to ascend into the rarely explored world of the canopy where they search for the nests of these elusive mammals. Conservation groups use tree survey data to help establish buffers and earn protection for forests that might otherwise be logged.


Red tree voles. Photo by Burt Gildart.

The Future of Oregon Forests

A few weeks ago Governor John Kitzhaber wrote a letter to the Oregon congressional delegation urging lawmakers to work on a new plan for the so-called O&C lands.

Managed by the BLM, the 2.5 million acres of public forest known as the O&C lands were revested to the federal government in 1916 after the California and Oregon Railroad Company was found to have repeatedly abused its federal land grants for profit.

In an attempt to make up for the lack of local tax revenue, the O&C Land Act of 1937 required that half of the gross timber receipts from the designated public lands would be used to augment the general fund for 18 rural Oregon counties.

The decades of intensive logging that followed brought the counties millions of dollars annually until the Northwest Forest Plan established new safeguards that reduced timber harvests.

Since 2000 the federal government has been subsidizing many of the O&C counties through the Secure Rural Schools Act. With these payments set to expire at the end of this year, many Oregon counties are in a state of budgetary crisis.

A new bill sponsored by congressmen Peter Defazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D), and Greg Walden (R) would transfer about 1.5 million acres, including trees up to 120 years old, into a timber trust that would be managed for production under the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

The remaining lands would be turned over to the U.S. Forest Service to be managed for conservation, including 90,000 acres of new wilderness and 150 miles of new Wild and Scenic river designations.

Critics view this plan as a step in the wrong direction, with rural counties once again relying on timber receipts for revenue which creates an incentive to maximize timber harvests within the trust lands while weakening environmental protections.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who serves as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, disagrees with key aspects of the Defazio plan and has instead proposed to extend the Secure Rural Schools Act. In moving toward a long-term solution he has outlined principles for new legislation that have earned support from a coalition of environmental organizations.

Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare, among others, is critical of Wyden’s plan.

“The senator is, frankly, out of touch with what is going on here on the ground and with what we need,” he told the Associated Press.

He believes that an extension of the Rural Schools Act would undermine upcoming ballot initiatives to increase taxes in several rural counties and fails to address the long-term needs of county residents.

Back in Corvallis, Wilson is keeping a close eye on the political battle.

“Our forests should be conserved to mitigate for climate change, and for the other amenities they provide—beautiful scenery, refuge for imperiled species, clean air and water, and opportunities for recreation and tourism that boost the state’s economy.”

by Mike Vernon