Judge sides with government; environmental group may appeal

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Bark Staff Attorney Brenna Bell, left, and Program Director Russ Plaeger discuss the unstable geology of the Collawash River Watershed during a media tour Thursday, April 17.An Oregon judge has given the U.S. Forest Service the go-ahead for a tree thinning project in the Mount Hood National Forest, but environmental watch-dog group Bark is strongly considering a formal appeal of the decision.

The group opposes the project that will thin second-growth plantations of 30- to 60-year-old trees dispersed throughout approximately 2,053 acres in the Collawash Watershed north of Bagby Hot Springs in the Clackamas River Ranger District.

The Forest Service’s environmental assessment for the project notes that only about 1,588 acres would be thinned as no thinning will occur in stream protection buffer areas.

The project is referred to as the “Jazz Timber Sale” in Bark’s lingo, or as the “Jazz Thinning Project” in Forest Service documents.

And it’s not just the name that creates division.

It’s been a prolonged disagreement.

Bark has been fighting the project since its inception in 2011.

The timber sale was withdrawn under a previous supervisor of the Mt. Hood National Forest, but was reintroduced under the direction of the newest supervisor, Lisa Northrop.

Bark filed a lawsuit in July 2013 against Northrop, the U.S. Forest Service and Interfor, the Canadian logging company that won two sale contracts for the project.

The suit alleges that the Forest Service violated its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Forest Management Act by providing an inadequate environmental assessment for the project.

The Forest Service states in its environmental assessment that the purpose of the project is to improve the health and growth of trees, increase plant diversity and to provide forest products (in this case, timber) to the local economy.

Bark has numerous objections to the project.

As pointed out in a Bark press release, the Collawash River is a tributary of the Clackamas River, which provides drinking water to more than 300,000 people.

Threatened species such as Chinook salmon and steelhead also call the Collawash River home.

The land itself is cause for concern, said Bark representatives.

“The Collawash is the most unstable watershed in all of Mt. Hood National Forest,” said Brenna Bell, Bark staff attorney..

She explained that there is a lot of potential for sediment to improperly enter the watershed through logging equipment and road construction. The risk, she said, is amplified by the “geologically unstable” nature of the landscape.

The project calls for construction of 11.5 miles of temporary roads on existing road alignments and 0.4 miles of new temporary roads along with repairs to 67 miles of existing road.

Bell said Bark has significant concerns about the effect of sediment — caused by road construction and logging equipment — on drinking water, fish habitat and increased landslide risk in the Collawash River Watershed.

Bell also noted that only 9 acres of the Jazz Thinning area have a Timber Emphasis land allocation, whereas, for example 734 acres are designated riparian reserves, 726 acres are late-successional reserves, 1,068 acres bare the “earthflow land” allocation.

“They planned a timber sale in an area that’s specifically designated for ecosystem protection,” she said. “And in order to justify the timber sale they use a lot of rhetoric around restoration.”

Bell admitted that while Bark takes issue with the concept of “restoration thinning” (they believe forests are capable of naturally thinning themselves), it was concern of the impact of road construction and logging equipment in the project area that caused the group to “go to the mat” over the Jazz thinning.

Though the Forest Service claims all of these concerns have been reasonably addressed in its environmental assessment, Bell said Bark questions the accuracy of the document in the first place.

She said that numerous Bark volunteers — or “ground truthers” — investigated roads the Forest Service proposed to rebuild for the project.

At times, it was difficult to find where the old road had been as the vegetation has reclaimed those routes.

According to Jonathan J. Rhodes, a hydrologist hired by Bark, “the level of reconstruction for some segments is far from adequately characterized in the (environmental assessment).”

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - This a patch of a road the Forest Service plans to rebuild to access trees in the Jazz Thinning area. Bark claims that the Forest Service has downplayed the state of recovery this road is in and therefore has not accurately accounted for the environmental impact of reconstructing it. Forest Service officials say the soil underneath has not fully recovered and rebuilding on an old road alignment is better than making an entirely new road.Bell said the Forest Service had mischaracterized such areas, and in so doing downplayed the scope of work it would take to build a functional temporary road to transport logging equipment and timber.

That, in turn, throws the Forest Service’s characterization of the environmental impact of such work into question, Bell said.

Ranger Mike Chaveas of the Clackamas River District of the Mt. Hood National Forest reiterated that the twofold goal of the Jazz Thinning Project is to increase the health and diversity of the tree stands and to provide sustainable timber products.

He explained that the stands in the project area are growing too densely and thinning will reduce the competition for sunlight and essential nutrients and allow for more diverse species to flourish.

Further, the trees had been planted this densely on purpose, under the assumption that the trees would be thinned at the proper time.

Chaveas said the environmental assessment had accurately and adequately evaluated conditions in the project area.

He stated the Mount Hood National Forest Plan does not prohibit timber harvest in areas with an earthflow designation, it simply requires an evaluation by experts to make sure the harvesting activities won’t activate a land slide.

“Every acre that is going to be thinned under this project was fully evaluated by our geologist, as well as soil scientist and hydrologist to determine whether or not there was any risk of reactivating any of the earth flows. And in doing that ground work any area that the geologist had concerns with was carved out and removed from the project,” he said.

“It’s been reviewed and looked at quite extensively by the experts,” said Laura Pramuk, public affairs officer for the Mt. Hood National Forest.

As far as the roads, Chaveas said their condition had not been mischaracterized.

He explained that while an old road may be covered in vegetation, the soil underneath may not be adequately recovered.

Chaveas explained the Forest Service’s reasoning like this: rather than create a whole new logging road and disrupt a new area, the Forest Service will reuse some old road alignments.

Chaveas added that the project will not add any roads to the system: temporary roads will be constructed to access timber, but will never be open to the public.

On completion of the project, all temporary roads for this project will be decommissioned: the soil will be ripped up and decompacted.

Helicopter logging as an alternative to disrupting the road system was too expensive an option to consider for the entire project, but will be used in certain locations in the Jazz Thinning area.

The Jazz Thinning project, Chaveas said, is not unlike many others the Forest Service has enacted in recent years.

He noted the Forest Service collaborated with Clackamas Stewardship Partners throughout the process of approving the project.

In December 2011 during the formal comment period for the Jazz Thinning Project, the Clackamas Stewardship Partners sent a letter indicating the group’s general consensus in support of the Jazz Thinning Preliminary Assessment.

Bell said Bark had withdrawn from the Clackamas Stewardship Partners over the Jazz Thinning Project.

District Judge Marco A. Hernandez ruled in favor of the Forest Service on Friday, April 11.

“A disagreement in opinion does not undermine the validity of an (environmental assessment),” Hernandez wrote in his opinion.

Chaveas noted that the judge had sided with the Forest Service on every one of Bark’s objections.

The takeaway, he said, is that not liking a project doesn’t make it illegal and that the Forest Service has the legal right to rely on its specialists.

Following the court decision, Chaveas said some tree felling has started, though helicopter logging won’t start until late April or early May.

Two of the four Jazz Thinning contracts have been sold to Interfor, and a third has opened for bidding.

Three of the component sales, Bass, Drum and Sax, are stewardship contracts, Chaveas noted.

Chaveas explained that stewardship contracts are an exchange of goods for services.

“The money basically stays local for funding restoration projects in exchange for the goods, which are the logs,” Chaveas said.

Russ Plaeger, Bark program director, said the group is strongly considering appealing the court’s decision.