‘Lava Restoration’ forest thin draws heat: Environmental group calls project ‘a significant assault’ on forests

by Ben Mitchell, Hood River News
Published January 30th, 2014

A proposed U.S. Forest Service timber thin west of Parkdale has caught the eye of environmental groups and resulted in an outpouring of public comment from those concerned about the potential impact of the project — officially named “Lava Restoration.”

According to USFS officials, approximately 700 comments were received on the project which proposes thinning over 1,600 acres of forestland in the Hood River Ranger District immediately west of the Parkdale lava flow, with the goal of improving forest health and enhancing huckleberry production on 103 acres. The project also plans to open up approximately 9 acres of forest to commercial logging, while planting would occur on 127 acres of land primarily affected by the 2011 Dollar Lake fire. Douglas fir and hemlock comprise a majority of the tree species within the project’s scope.

Jenny O’Connor, forest environmental coordinator who has worked at the Hood River Ranger District since 2003, said the amount of feedback received on the Lava Restoration was “a lot more” than past thinning projects.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had this much interest in a timber sale,” she noted and added that comments were also received from Oregon Wild, American Forest Resource Council, and individuals.

A sizable majority of the comments came from Portland environmental group BARK and its supporters, who submitted 671 copies of a BARK-generated form letter to the USFS that primarily expressed concerns over the amount of road construction needed for the project. The form letter also called the siting of the Lava Restoration without a cumulative impact study “irresponsible,” saying the project area would “align back to back” with the Red Hill and Polallie Cooper timber thins also planned for the north face of Mount Hood. The letter concluded with a request for a “meaningful analysis of all three of these projects.”

Russ Plaeger, program director for BARK, said his organization tries to comment on every USFS forest proposal involving Mount Hood, but noted that BARK was “much more concerned” about the Lava Restoration due to its proximity to the other timber thins, which he referred to as “a significant assault on the forests and watersheds on the north slope of Mount Hood.”

The Lava Restoration does call for the decommissioning, closure, and seasonal closure of 24.5 miles of USFS roads, but Plaeger said these efforts were not enough to address concerns of sediment runoff from road services into fish-bearing streams.

“While the proposal does include 24.5 miles of road closures, only 2.1 miles of these roads would actually be removed from the landscape through active decommissioning,” he explained. “The remaining 22.4 miles would not be removed, simply gated or bermed with soil or rocks and saved for future use. These ‘stored’ roads would continue to act as sediment sources during significant rain fall or snow melt events. Muddy water running off the roads would impact water quality and fish habitat in nearby streams.”

Plaeger said BARK was also concerned with thinning operations near the Vista Ridge trailhead and the proximity of the project to the Mount Hood Wilderness Area boundary, as well as the forest service’s intent to cut 1- to 5-acre gaps in the project area, which by the forest service’s estimation “would retain one to six trees” per gap.

USFS personnel addressed some of BARK’s concerns in a preliminary assessment of the project, on which BARK provided input before the group’s letter campaign. In the assessment, USFS reported that “the wilderness boundaries within approximately ¼ mile of the proposed treatments would be posted and/or refreshed by land surveyors prior to any implementation of the project. Potential impacts to the trailhead are addressed through PDCs/Mitigation Measures restricting the potential impact to the Vista Ridge Trail.”

As for concerns over road decommissioning, USFS reported in the preliminary assessment that this was “not considered a key issue because there are no substantive unresolved resource impacts.”

Moreover, USFS said in the preliminary assessment that thinning the forest is necessary to help eliminate pests and fire danger.

“The stand composition, structure and densities in the project area have been altered by previous vegetation management, fire suppression, favorable climatic conditions for vegetation growth, and an increased presence and scale of native/non-native insects and diseases,” the assessment reads. “This has led to high-density stand conditions, which contributes to mortality of trees due to competition for nutrients, water and sunlight. Insects and diseases are also more likely to kill trees that grow in dense, crowded conditions.”

Those who commented on the project also have the opportunity to file written objections with the USFS. The objection period is expected to end on April 1. Janeen Tervo, district manager for the Hood River Ranger District, said she expected a decision on the timber thin to be delivered by May or June, but added that the decision may arrive later to allow for enough time to address the public’s concerns.