Protecting the beautiful rivers, wild lands and legendary botanical diversity of Oregon's Kalmiopsis Country

People who matter – Remembering Kathie Durbin

Update 5/24/2013: See new comment below.  Kathie Durbin sadly passed away on March 15th. She’s someone who mattered. For those who knew her, wished they’d known her better or have no idea who she was, I recommend Andy Kerr’s beautiful tribute at Oregon Wild’s blog and this moving moving remembrance by her colleague Andrea Damewood.

Kathie Durbin with her beloved golden retriever Feona underneath a giant Brewer spruce at the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area
Kathie Durbin  in 2006 with her beloved golden retriever Feona under an ancient Brewer spruce at the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area. Earlier she’d been scrambling through an illegal logging unit the Forest Service had laid out in the Botanical Area and oversaw the clear cutting of.


Rich Fairbanks left this tribute to Kathie on the Kalmiopsis Wild contact page. It speaks for itself.

Thank you very much for the piece on Kathie Durbin. She was one hell of a reporter. She spoke truth to power, even though she knew it would bring her nothing but trouble. She had the intellectual power to get the real story and the courage to turn the rock over, no matter what might wriggle out. She was one of the few people that I thought of as a hero. I will miss her.

Rich, a now retired, long time USDA Forest Service employee was the Interdisciplinary Team Leader for what could have been a balanced approach to post-fire logging in the wake of the 2002 Biscuit Fire. But the approach selected was political not ecological and anything but balanced. There are links below to Kathie’s investigative reporting of the fire and it’s aftermath that ran in High Country News.


My words, unlike those above, don’t do full justice to Kathie Durbin. I just know we’re all the richer for her  journalism, dedication and passion for the truth. Here’s why Kathie mattered to the wild places of the Siskiyou National Forest and to the Kalmiopsis Wildlands.

When she was at the Oregonian Kathie came to the Siskiyou to write about the many thousands of acres of clearcuts that were included in the Northwest Forest Plan’s Late-Successional (aka old growth) Forest Reserve System and the thousands of acres of old growth forests that were slated for commercial logging. First Dave Willis, Steve Marsden and myself took her to a veritable moonscape on BLM land—a watershed high above the Wild Rogue River, which was riddled with roads and logged, with not a large tree left standing. We had maps show that it was designated an old growth forest reserve under the draft Northwest Forest Plan.

Then we drove to Shasta Costa, a long narrow gem of a watershed on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest that also flows into the Wild and Scenic Rogue River.  The heart of Shasta Costa is a 14,000 acre Inventoried Roadless Area. A wide swath across the middle of the watershed was to be a commercial logging zone (aka Matrix) under the draft forest plan. Again we had the maps to prove it.

The old growth grove in Shasta Costa that was slated for logging

With the Oregonian photographer, we scrambled down into a beautiful old growth grove at the edge of the to-be-logged area. Blue paint still marked the trees slated for cutting in the Shasta Costa timber sale. The forest floor was thick with duff. It was like walking on a sponge, one of the essential ecological services old growth forests provide (absorbing precipitation, holding moisture and slowing runoff).

The Shasta Costa Inventoried Roadless Area is the heart of the watershed.
Shasta Costa Inventoried Roadless Area and old growth forest reserve from the Shasta Costa overlook

Kathie wrote a front page story for the Oregonian. Her facts were unassailable. Now when you stop at the Shasta Costa overlook on Siskiyou National Forest road 23 (aka Bear Camp Road) and look out over the unbroken native forests of the Shasta Costa Roadless Area, take a moment and remember Kathie Durbin.

About 40% of the watershed burned in the 1930's, resulting in natural younger stands.
As a result of fire, forest age at Shasta Costa is complex and diverse. The slight bend to the trunk of some of the trees is known as pistol butt and can denote slope movement.

It’s impossible to know all the causal factors that led to the Shasta Costa watershed being designated a Late-Successional Forest Reserve in the final Northwest Forest Plan. I like to think it’s because someone wrote the truth and it mattered. What we do know is the roadless native forests of Shasta Costa were at a crossroad in the early 1990s. Because people cared enough and fought for it, it mostly remains intact today and primarily affected by the forces of nature.

Past logging left deep skid trails on steep slopes.
Past logging in the headwaters of Shasta Costa Creek fragmented forest habitat and left deep skid trails on steep slopes. The logging and associated roads still deliver sediment to Shasta Costa Creek today.

In 2005 for High Country News, Kathie wrote the only balanced and comprehensive account of the epic struggle over the Bush Administration’s post-fire logging of the Biscuit Fire Area.  It’s a critical part of the history of the Kalmiopsis Wildlands. As usual Kathie dug deep into facts not reported by others. Unfortunately, on last years 10th Anniversary of the Biscuit Fire no one revisited Kathie’s article  “Unsalvageable.”

Through interviews with key player she points out that the story of the Biscuit Fire could have been more positive if the model developed by Forest Service planner Rich Fairbanks and his 39 member team of scientists and Forest Service employees had prevailed:

This story almost had a different ending. In early 2003, as the ashes of the Biscuit Fire cooled, forest planner and fire specialist Rich Fairbanks led the Forest Service interdisciplinary team that developed a plan to address the aftermath of the fire. As part of a draft environmental impact statement, the team created a range of alternatives for using a light touch on these charred forests and staying out of old-growth reserves and roadless areas. The team focused instead on rehabilitating roads and streams, replanting scorched forests and meadows, and thinning and underburning to reduce future fire risks to populated areas.

The team’s original “preferred alternative” would have produced about 90 million board-feet of timber, most from “matrix” lands dedicated to multiple-use management, including timber harvest. (It takes about 5,000 board-feet to fill a log truck, and 10,000 board-feet to build an average-sized home.) It was a true stewardship plan that recognized the fragility of the burned landscape and the importance of the wild salmon streams that thread the Siskiyous’ V-shaped valleys. “I wanted to respect the values that were out there,” says Fairbanks, a 30-year Forest Service veteran. (emphasis added)

One needs to read the whole article to understand where things went wrong but this explains a little. Note – Scott Conroy, was the Forest Supervisor for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

At a meeting of the team on Sept. 30, Conroy called for a vote on the six action alternatives. Twenty-six of the 39 members present favored an alternative that salvaged just 96 million board-feet of timber, stayed out of roadless areas, and placed a high priority on watershed and wildlife habitat rehabilitation.

That wasn’t the answer Conroy was looking for. When the draft environmental impact statement finally came out, the preferred alternative called for selling 518 million board-feet of timber — more than five times what the planning team had recommended — by entering roadless areas and old-growth reserves. (emphasis added)

The Babyfoot Lake/Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the wake of the Fiddler timber sale
The Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area trailhead in the wake of the Fiddler timber sale. The area logged is either Forest Service Botanical Area or Northwest Forest Plan Late-Successional Reserve.

And they did but even by logging Late-Successional Reserves and Inventoried Roadless Areas, the volume was never there. It was a fiction created by people with the Forest Service. One of the results was the 2005 Fiddler timber sale , the worst of the many bad timber sales logged in the wake of the Biscuit Fire. More important perhaps were the opportunities that were lost:

Fairbanks also recognized the opportunity to experiment with fire in a remote, sparsely populated forest. “This could have been a laboratory,” he says, with forest thinning and prescribed burns in the “wildland-urban interface” to protect communities, and a more natural role for fire in remote roadless areas. “With a large area like this, we could have learned how a large-scale fire works without endangering local communities.”

Read Kathie Durbin’s full article here.

In 2006,Kathie came south again working on a spec piece about the Forest Service’s clearcutting of 17 acres of the Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area and the Fiddler timber sale after the agency told a Federal District Court Judge they would not log Botanical Areas.  That story never got written. These are some photos from the trip.

Kathie in the unlogged Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area
Kathie and Feona in the unlogged Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area
Kathie Durbin in the logged Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area
Kathie in the logged Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area with biologist Richard Nawa
Kathie Durbin looking for a story
Kathie looking at all the old growth snags that should have been left standing as wildlife habitat in the Fiddler Late-Successional Reserve timber sale but were cut, dragged to a landing and then left by the logging company because they were defective for milling.
Oregon grape, Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area
Oregon grape and vanilla leaf in the naturally recovering Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area

Botanical note: The Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area was set aside to protect pure stands of Brewer spruce. Learn more about this amazing ancient tree species at Michael Kauffman’s Conifer County Blog.

During the Biscuit Fire, many of the Brewer spruce in the Botanical Area were killed as was a possibly record Brewer spruce and a primordial pure stand on Fiddler Mountain. In addition, the Fiddler timber sale and the logging of parts of the Botanical Area likely impacted the species. For example, we found tiny Brewer spruce seedlings next to slash piles scheduled for burning. Additional areas need to be set aside on the Siskiyou National Forest for the protection of this globally rare trees species.

Thank you Kathie Durbin. All photos by Barbara Ullian. Only non-commercial use is allowed without permission.

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