Joint project between Malheur wildlife refuge and BLM raises ire in Frenchglen

By Lauren Brown
Burns Times-Herald

If you’ve driven to Frenchglen in the last year or so, about five miles outside the small community, you’ll likely have noticed hillside after hillside littered with cut juniper trees.

There seem to be two perceptions of those downed trees. Some see an eyesore, loss of wildlife habitat and a distinct deviation from the natural landscape. Others see an area saved from invasive juniper that is spreading far beyond a naturally occurring trend.

The juniper cutting occurred in December 2008 and involved about 1,400 acres. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Bureau of Land Management teamed up to cut the junipers on refuge and BLM land along Highway 205 and Frenchglen and on BLM land northwest of Savoy Lake and west of Peanut Lake.

Wildfire reasoning

Chad Karges, refuge deputy project leader, said that the juniper cutting was funded through a community wildlife fire protection project. The area selected to be cut consisted of acreage that had been identified as “high hazard” in the county’s wildfire protection plan back in 2001.

According to a document found on the BLM Web site under the Steens Mountain recreation plants/animals heading, the refuge and the BLM have been using the county’s recommendations to plan Wildland Urban Interface projects on federal lands, and both agencies received funding to carry out the juniper removal project near Frenchglen in 2008.
Because the project involved refuge land, an Environmental Impact Statement was not required. The refuge and BLM were also not required to hold meetings to publicize the project.
Perhaps this is why when work began in December 2008, some Frenchglen residents were upset. John Witzel lives in Frenchglen, just a hop, skip and a jump from the juniper removal site. “The tree areas here are a novelty,” Witzel said. “They’re cutting down what many of us think is part of the landscape. These trees should be there.”

Dan Ridenour, a fuels specialist with the Burns district BLM, said that no one is arguing that juniper are native to the area. He said that research conducted by the BLM and the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center indicates that the juniper are expanding beyond their natural range. The juniper also use a lot of water and some argue prevent native grass and shrubs from growing. “We’re not trying to eliminate every juniper off the landscape,” he said.

John Ross runs the Frenchglen Hotel and said he gets questions from visitors about all the downed juniper frequently. “The thing that a lot of us were upset about was that they had a meeting to talk about it after they started cutting.”

Indeed, after much of the project was completed, representatives from the refuge and the BLM held a public meeting in Frenchglen in December 2008 to explain what was going on. Much of the rationale for the project lies in the theory that the juniper trees present a fire hazard.

However, Witzel argues that the downed juniper, which for the most part has been lying where it was cut for more than a year, presents an even greater fire hazard.
The refuge and the BLM have opened the area to those who want to cut firewood. Karges said that there have been 11 permits issued by the refuge to those who would  want to use the cut juniper. Permits can also be obtained though the BLM.

“We’re allowing firewood cutting so people can get some utilization out of that juniper,” Ridenour said.

For permit information, call the BLM at 541-573-4400, or download a permit application from the refuge Web site at www.fws.gov/malheur/management.html.

Wildlife and weeds

Witzel said he also suspects that the refuge and the BLM have an ulterior motive for cutting down the juniper: It creates a better habitat for big horn sheep. He noted that big horn sheep tags sell for a lot more than deer tags.

Witzel worries that all this is at the expense of the other wildlife in the area. He said that mule deer used to winter among the juniper. However, he hasn’t seen any deer in the area since the cutting.

Karges admitted that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife did transplant some big horn sheep in the Frenchglen area a few years ago, but said that if the cutting of the juniper benefits the sheep habitat, it’s secondary to the wildfire protection plan.

On a tour of the juniper cutting, Witzel pointed out areas where noxious weeds such as perennial pepperweed and cheat grass have popped up among the downed junipers. “We’ve gotten rid of a truly indigenous species and replaced it with two non-indigenous,” he said.

Karges said that the refuge is concerned about noxious weeds moving in to the project site. As a result, the refuge has placed restrictions on when people can go in and cut the wood, avoiding muddy times of year. He noted that they also only conduct juniper burning during the winter when the ground is frozen.

Natural evolution

Witzel is passionate about the landscape in Frenchglen, having been raised there and now raising his own children there.

His great grandfather settled there in 1876. The early settlers had to use the juniper trees for fire wood and fencing. Witzel believes that the area has always been home to juniper trees, many of which were cut down when the country was first settled.

With the advent of oil and electric heating, people didn’t need the fire wood so badly. So the trees grew back, and as wildfires were suppressed, they flourished. Witzel believes the trees are just re-establishing where they used to be. “We really might need this wood someday, and we’re just cutting it all down,” he said.

What upsets Witzel is that there was no public discussion regarding the project. “They never mentioned any adverse effects at all,” he said.

Witzel worries about the effect on wildlife, grass and shrubs. He noted that the barren hillside will likely be much hotter in the summer without the benefit of the juniper trees’ shade.

Costs involved

The BLM and the refuge held a public meeting just last month to go over the cutting with local residents. They reiterated their stance that juniper increases the fuel loading and intensity of fire and that the cutting was necessary for wildfire protection.

Other juniper tree concerns listed in a document from the BLM Web site include increased soil erosion, reduced stream flows, reduced forage for wildlife, changes in plant community composition, structure and biodiversity and the replacement of sagebrush steppe communities with woodlands.

According to Ridenour  the funding breakdown of the project is as follows:

• $34,358 — cutting 717 acres
• $15,900 — cutting 313 acres
• $21,996 — cutting 433 acres
• $15,000 —  hand piling 25 acres around Frenchglen
• $2,400 hand piling on 22 acres west of Frenchglen

Ridenour said the project totaled more than $89,000.

The original project was supposed to involve more cutting. Both Ridenour of the BLM and Karges of the refuge said there will be no more cutting for now.

Witzel is worried about how this cutting will effect the Frenchglen landscape for years to come. “If I don’t speak up then there’s going to be nothing but a bare hillside,” he said.



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