Guest Opinion: Better forest management needed now

By Deb Wechselblatt

Every winter Pacific Northwest storms cause massive damage to both public and private property. What lessons should the recent storm teach us?

The two human activities that contribute most to landslides and watershed damage during winter storms: logging and road building (which often go together). Both activities channel water quickly over the surface leading to peak flow events less likely to occur when a forest canopy is slowly diffusing precipitation into the soil.

The result? Every year large storms damage both public and private property. It is difficult to hold private landowners (like Oregon State University) accountable for their poor management, but our public lands should be providing a good model of protecting our natural resources. Nothing threatens this more than the surplus of unmaintained roads on our public lands.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t follow in Washington’s footsteps.

In the state of Washington, the Forest Service delayed addressing its road problems and the results have been disastrous. The Forest Service estimates it will take $300 million or more to stabilize the road infrastructure. Concerns about Clean Water Act violations have prompted the State’s Department of Ecology and others to request Congress to intervene and provide emergency funding. The damage caused by the recent storm has increased the amount of money the state needs for road repair. The Olympic Forest experienced an estimated eight million dollars worth of storm damage.

Lesson No. 2: The Pacific Northwest needs a model for forest management to avoid annual winter disasters like the Highway 30 slide.

While the state should take action to stop irresponsible landowners from mismanaging their land and threatening others’ property and safety, the process could take years, if not decades. In the meantime, Oregonians need leadership in the form of a long-term forest management model that anticipates, and plans for, annual winter storms. The two goals of such a plan are simple: incorporate safe travel and mitigate damage to water quality.

Mt. Hood National Forest is the place to start. Not only is Mt. Hood the backyard of over one million Oregonians, but as publicly-owned forest land it is meant to be managed for the good of the people. It is where we go to hike, fish, camp, and relax, but it is also where one-third of all Oregonians get their drinking water. Most importantly, the Forest Service has a 100-year long history of managing these forests and building the infrastructure. This means that it has 100 years of data to utilize in creating a disaster-avoidance plan.

Lesson No. 3: Action is needed now.

Mt. Hood National Forest currently contains approximately 4,000 miles of road — enough to drive from Portland to New York City via Disney World in Florida. A 2003 analysis by the Forest Service recommended that 49 percent of forest roads be considered for closure because of threats to public safety and/or potential damage to natural resources.

Although not widely reported on, the recent storm caused the first major documented road failure and landslide in Mt. Hood National Forest this winter. A large section of road collapsed into the Collawash River, a major tributary of the Clackamas River, which provides drinking water to many of the area’s communities.

The only thing hindering moving forward with the creation of a sustainable road infrastructure is money. The Forest Service is already required to create a “Travel Plan,” yet due to budget constraints it has chosen to delay action on the deteriorating road system. Unfortunately, delay is not an option.

Each year we have storms that cause flooding and road damage in our region, we can demand something be done now or we can wait until another catastrophe happens. As Washington Congressman Norm Dicks stated, “If we do not fix our roads, we will drink our roads.” Oregonians are inching closer to this reality. But if our public land managers and elected officials demonstrate foresight and leadership, Mt. Hood National Forest has the potential to be just the model the Pacific Northwest needs.

Deb Wechselblatt is Campaign Coordinator at Bark, a non-profit conservation organization working with recreation groups to protect watershed health and ensure safe access in Mt. Hood National Forest.