The Oregonian: Mount Hood logging disputes shift as clear cuts decline and thinning projects rise

Published December 20, 2012
by Scott Learn

The Jazz thinning project, a 2,000-acre logging plan near a Clackamas River tributary, features the type of selective tree cutting that's become the accepted approach for much of the Mount Hood National Forest.

But Mount Hood's main environmental watchdog group is fighting it, charging the Forest Service with using thinning as cover for potentially destructive logging.

Amid the criticism, the service has pulled back the previously approved project for a second look, upsetting logging interests who say Jazz is a far cry from the clear cuts of the 1950s through 1980s.

It's a pitched timber battle, but also one that illustrates how Mount Hood's logging landscape has changed since the spotted-owl-driven logging wars fired up in the 1990s.

Disputes have become rarer, as new collaborative groups tamp down bickering and thinning projects supplant traditional logging throughout northwest Oregon's most familiar forest.

They've also become subtler, focused on the costs and benefits of thinning in often sensitive areas not slated for clear cuts, and on the Forest Service's ability to monitor timber contractors for compliance with logging rules.

"Literally, nine of the 2,000 acres they're going to log are designated within the forest plan for that purpose," says Olivia Schmidt, program director for Bark, the Mount Hood watchdog group. "It just doesn't stand up to reason."

Thinning upsides

Logging groups and the Forest Service beg to differ.

Much of the forest is second-growth Douglas fir "plantations," planted roughly 8 feet apart after clear cuts 30 to 60 years ago.

Thinning those stands helps the remaining trees set roots deeper and grow faster and healthier, they say, making them less susceptible to insects, disease and high winds. Forest undergrowth would increase, as would species such as western hemlock and red cedar, alder and noble fir.

Over time, the thinking goes, the forest would more closely resemble old growth stands. In drier eastside forests, it also significantly reduces wildfire risk.

That's been the logging model for the last decade, says Mike Chaveas, the Clackamas River district ranger on the Mount Hood National Forest. Commercial thinning has accounted for 80 percent of logging from 2001 to 2010, he says.

Several cuts in the Collawash River watershed, home to the Jazz planning area, have followed the pattern.

Like Bark, the American Forest Resource Council, which represents timber interests, appealed the Jazz decision. But its objection was that the 2,000-acre planning area was too small. The Collawash watershed covers roughly 97,000 acres.

"It's thinning that our forests need," says Tom Partin, the group's president. "The equipment we use out there anymore is all high-tech, with a much lighter touch on the ground."

The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, adopted after the northern spotted owl came under the Endangered Species Act, predicts annual sales from Mount Hood of 64 million board feet. Nowadays, it's coming in around 30 million board feet, with overall annual tree growth about 13 times harvest levels, the Forest Service says.

Over time, as timber sales are executed, the Jazz project could generate 15 million board feet, the service says, projected to support about 125 timber jobs and provide enough wood to build several thousand houses.

The Forest Service screened the project through the Clackamas Stewardship Partners, a collaborative group with timber and environmental representatives in place for eight years. No members of the group appealed.

But Bark dropped out of the partners group for a time, knowing it was likely to oppose Jazz. Oregon Wild stayed on and decided not to fight the project. Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild's wilderness coordinator, said the group is focusing on other Mount Hood logging proposals outside the Clackamas drainage that it sees as more harmful.

Jeffrey Gerwing, an associate professor of environmental science and management at Portland State University, is part of the partners group.

The Jazz project's "variable density thinning" would help make a more complex forest, he says. Studies of other Northwest forests have shown increases in plant diversity, insect abundance and migratory songbirds after thinning.

Into the forest

Walking through the Collawash watershed, you see evidence for that point of view. Stands of spindly young Douglas firs, bark still chalky white, are common. Logged areas aren't clear cut, with the "leave trees" left behind still marked in orange.

But the forest doesn't call to mind a plantation either.

It's steep and watery, with dozens of streams coursing through. Ferns, Oregon grape and hemlock trees cover much of the understory. Dead snags and fallen "nurse" trees, important to a natural forest, abound.

"There's a difference between planting trees and letting nature do its thing and the kind of industrial management you see in private forests," says Alex Brown, Bark's executive director.

Bark has more concerns about the Jazz project because its staff and 50 volunteers have scouted every acre, Brown says. They've found unusually steep slopes destined for logging, he says, unmapped streams and water features and more complexity than the Forest Service describes. Twelve miles of road, including seven reclaimed at taxpayer expense, would be reopened for the project.

The Collawash includes some of the most geologically unstable terrain in Mount Hood's forests and 168 miles of fish-bearing streams. Road building, logging truck traffic, skid rows and logging yards can increase erosion into those streams, threatening water quality.

Bark contends that the thinly staffed Forest Service doesn't have the personnel to make sure timber contractors are following "best management practices," or BMPs, that reduce erosion, particularly on a 2,000 acre project.

Since 1996, Mount Hood Forest Service staffing dropped from 400 permanent positions to 159, according to a 2010 report.

A Bark record request for Forest Service BMP monitoring documents returned evidence of just four units being monitored in two sales, and several of those documents showed problems. Bark says it has found skid trails too close to streams and large trees that were cut instead of spared.

"The Forest Service says they're doing the monitoring," Bark's Schmidt says, "but if they can't provide documents, then we're just taking their word for it."

Moving forward

Ranger Chaveas concedes the Forest Service doesn't have "rigorous documentation" of monitoring. The last overall review of BMP implementation came in 2004.

But timber sale administrators do regularly monitor activity, and can withhold payment if contractors don't follow the rules and properly reclaim areas after logging, he says. Forest Service scientists use their findings to improve requirements for subsequent projects.

On Jazz, some 400 acres of the 2,000-acre plan area are off limits to logging because of needs for stream and water quality protection.

Chaveas says loggers will stick largely to flat spots and logging trucks will avoid roads along streams and steep slopes to prevent erosion.

A Forest Service environmental analysis said the logging would create little increase in sediment runoff, a hazard to fish. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon and steelhead, signed off on it.

But Chaveas said the Forest Service did decide to take a second look at sediment issues after Bark's appeal. That could take several months.

Gerwing, of Portland State, said he'd like the Clackamas Stewardship Partners to work with the Forest Service on how BMP implementation and monitoring might be improved. After that, he hopes the project can move forward.