(The following article appeared in today’s Eugene Register-Guard. – mk)
McKENZIE BRIDGE — Jerry Gilmour is able to escape from Bend most weekends and drive over the Santiam Pass to his wooded retreat, a cabin he built on a 4-acre swath of pristine land bordering the Willamette National Forest.
A few weeks back, Gilmour drove up the narrow road off Highway 126 that leads to his property in the small community of McKenzie Bridge, fired up the 100-year-old wood stove that once burned trash in a locomotive and took his yellow Labrador retriever, Kona, for a walk. It’s a routine.
But on this trip, as Gilmour trudged past his favorite old maple tree and through the woods on the edge of his property, something was different. Stapled to the trees were bright blue signs, bright orange markers, and flags dangling from the branches.
“Boundary cutting unit,” the signs read. The author: the U.S. Forest Service. The telltale markers of a soon-to-commence logging operation.
Gilmour was surprised, but as a part-time resident, he figured maybe he’d just been out of the loop. He did some investigating on the Internet and found the description and documents relating to the Goose Project, a 2,134-acre timber sale that will produce 38 million board feet of lumber, enough to fill 7,000 log trucks.
Then Gilmour drove to Edgar Exum and Claudette Aras’ house, which rises from a meadow in the shadow of Lookout Ridge on 20 acres that also border the national forest. Had they heard about the Goose Project? They hadn’t. Nor had any of the neighbors they wound up asking. Not even the publisher of the local newspaper, the McKenzie River Reflections, had heard about it.
Eventually, Gilmour and the Exums learned that a couple of conservation groups, Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands, knew about the project, which the Forest Service had approved in 2010. The groups had appealed the sale, arguing that the agency failed to adequately describe how it would protect the 956 acres of spotted owl habitat in the area. The appeal was denied, the project approved, the 45-day window for public comment closed.
Which means Gilmour and his neighbors have no recourse for weighing in on a substantial logging operation that is literally in their backyards. No recourse to file an appeal or a lawsuit, because they didn’t comment on it in the first place. They can only watch and wait, for the buzz of chainsaw and the whir of helicopters to arrive and start plucking trees out of the forest, one by one.
Except, watching and waiting is not in these neighbors’ DNA. They’ve embarked on what may be a quixotic quest to persuade the Forest Service to stop the Goose Project, gather public input, answer questions from people in McKenzie Bridge and consider changes to the operation.
“They just didn’t tell us,” Edgar Exum said. “That’s my major objection.”
Added Aras: “Burying it in the legal notices is not notification. It just isn’t.”
The Forest Service has no obligation to listen. The agency published a notice of the proposed timber sale in the small print of The Register-Guard’s classified ad section in 2010, and the 45-day public comment period that followed has expired. But Terry Baker, the McKenzie River District ranger, who was not in that post in 2010, said he’s come to a conclusion that may surprise Gilmour and his neighbors:
“As a district, we dropped the ball on contacting some of the adjacent landowners and community members about the project,” he said.
In addition to the legal notice, the district did contact a few community leaders and held a field trip before finishing the project design, Baker said. That resulted in some changes, among them an agreement that no trees greater than 36 inches in diameter will be cut within 350 feet of a private residence. But the Forest Service could have done better, Baker said. What he would have done is study a map of the property and contact all property owners within a quarter-mile of the project, mailing out notices to all involved and inviting them to participate in the discussion, he said.
While he can’t turn back time, Baker said he’s looking at holding a public meeting in the next few weeks and talking with landowners between now and then to discuss their concerns. He also intends to set up a “community monitoring group” that will keep tabs on the project as it develops and provide feedback that could be used to make changes as it progresses or be taken into consideration on future jobs.
Whether any of that will address the residents’ specific concerns depends on how talks with the Forest Service play out in the coming weeks. The first of five sales of timber closed on Thursday, and it’s unlikely that even a renewed effort to gather input would result in major changes to the project.
Still, “If there are site-specific concerns landowners have, I’m willing to work with them,” Baker said. “There’s going to be a threshold. I’m not sure what it is yet.”
Some of the neighbors’ concerns have already been addressed by the Forest Service in its response to the two conservation groups’ appeal of the project.
Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator for Oregon Wild, said the Forest Service should have chosen an alternative that avoids logging in mature forests and in riparian areas and that cuts back on the 7.7 miles of temporary roads that will be built to support the project. Beyond that, he said, the 965 acres of spotted owl habitat should have prompted the agency to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement, a more detailed analysis than what the Forest Service did, which was an Environmental Assessment.
“We shouldn’t be logging mature forests in riparian reserves,” Heiken said.
Most of the project involves thinning young planted stands, which is good for fire suppression and wildlife foraging, Heiken said. In fact, Baker says those are among the key reasons the project is happening in the first place: to improve the forest and reduce hazard fuel levels, along with supplying local communities with sustainably harvested timber.
But some residents in McKenzie Bridge question the Goose Project’s 322 acres of “gap” cutting, which they say is a euphemism for clear-cuts, which could result in scars to an otherwise lush forest.
“That ridge is going to resemble a checkerboard in 20 years,” Edgar Exum said.
Baker said the gap cutting on the project is designed to help species from butterfly to elk to ground squirrels who do better in the brushes and shrubs that comprise “early seral habitat,” areas that exist before conifer trees begin to block out the light. As for riparian reserves, that part of the effort is aimed at improving riparian reserves by doing thinning that could allow larger trees to flourish, he said. And the decision to go with an Environmental Assessment was based on consultations with other agencies that resulted in a conclusion that no endangered species would be harmed by the project.
What bothers Gilmour, Exum, Aras and others is that they never got a chance to ask their questions, raise their concerns and have them answered directly. They see good things about the Goose Project, too, but they want more input, information and involvement.
“People around here ought to have known the answers to these questions,” Gilmour said.