A McKenzie Bridge logging plan takes neighbors by surprise

(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.

24 Comments

  1. The volume figure seems about TEN times too high? 38 million board feet off 2134 acres means about 3 loads of logs pulled from each and every acre. Also, the talk of clearcutting is a facade, as the Ranger talks about ” that part of the effort is aimed at improving riparian reserves by doing thinning that could allow larger trees to flourish.” You cannot reach 38 million board feet with that much thinning.

    • Larry, The volume figure is not a typo. These are moist forests west of the Cascades, and about half the acres (and far more than half the volume) is from logging in forests older than 80 years old that provide habitat for spotted owls, (and can fill log trucks fast).

      This project is a mix of things we support (like thinning young stands that were previously clearcut and planted too densely) and things we oppose (like regen logging, excessive road building, logging mature forests that provide spotted owl habitat – forests that were not previously logged and don’t need restoration, logging mature forests in riparian reserves, and logging in an uninventoried 8,200 acre roadless area).

      The fire risk reduction justification for this project is pretty questionable given the moist forest, and naturally long fire return interval. The need for logging mature forests in riparian reserves and spotted owl habitat are also unsupported by science.

      The FS developed an alternative that focused on thinning young stands and would have produced 9 million board feet of volume and that alternative likely would not have been appealed but the FS chose the controversial alternative. The McKenzie District is kind of notorious for pushing the envelope and including controversial units in their projects.

      • If those acres include riparian zones, which they may or may not, that would radically push those volumes per acres much higher. Yes, I know the trees up there are very tall but, the equivalent of cutting seventeen 30″ dbh trees on every acre sounds kind of fishy to me. However, I also know that very large trees CAN be cut under the rules. “Thinning” pockets of old growth can get you some 3000 board foot trees, or bigger. I don’t support projects that cut such huge trees. Maybe a hard diameter limit would be in order, for this project, although I really dislike them.

        • Well, maybe we are in agreement that the FS is removing too many trees. 😉

          Another relevant detail of the logging plan is a plethora of small “gaps” embedded within the thinned areas. The gaps total 322 acres (25% of the commercially treated acres) and will retain just a few trees per acre.

          While prescribing gaps might hep add diversity to uniform stands of small trees, this is not necessary in mature forests. Canopy gap formation is an well documented natural process that operates quite well in mature forests. Natural gaps retain a lot more structure and function than gaps created via commercial logging.

  2. Doug, Thank you so much for offering some additional insights and perspective into this particular logging project….and for correcting the misinformation contained in the previous comment.

  3. In addition to the significant ecological problems with the Goose sale, some in the local community (as the news article suggests) have raised concerns about the public process – points which may have broader relevance to discussions on this blog.

    One adjacent property owner sent at detailed letter to the Forest Supervisor outlining several specific problems with the public notice about this sale which completely surrounds the community of McKenzie Bridge.

    You really have to see the embedded images to get the full flavor of the letter, so I have posted it here: http://dougo.posterous.com/regarding-the-public-process-for-the-goose-ti

    As a teaser, I provide this excerpt which makes a strong point:

    “6) This brings up the subject of web addresses and their potential use in withholding information from the public. Indeed, the pertinent Goose Project documents are elsewhere on the USFS website, but try to imagine a local resident, who had somehow become aware of the project, chatting over the back fence with a neighbor and saying, “Oh, you ought to check out the Goose Project. Just go to your computer’s web browser and type in:

    http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3gDfxMDT8MwRydLA1cj72BTMwMTAwjQL8h2VAQArb-_RA!!/?ss=110618&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&navid=130110000000000&pnavid=130000000000000&accessDB=true&position=Project*&groupid=29829&ttype=projectdetail&pname=Willamette%20National%20Forest-%20Projects

    “That’s a little unwieldy, wouldn’t you say? Having designed a few websites, I know perfectly well that the project could have had an address like:

    http://www.fs.fed.us/mckenzie/gooseproject

    “I know that address was (and is) available because if you click that imaginary link you get a “Page Not Found” file at the USFS domain.”

    • Doug: I believe that the USFS has displayed the same quality of forest management ability over the past 10-15 years as they have in designing websites and constructing website addresses. That is what has so many of us concerned. On the surface, incompetence and sabotage appear to be the same thing.

    • Doug, I respectfully disagree with you on this one. I got to the Goose project in two click from the Williamette webpage.
      First I looked up Williamette national forest in google. If I were a neighbor, I might have a shortcut on my desktop for this. Once there I clicked on NEPA projects and SOPA (click 1) there was the Goose project (click 2).
      The SOPA is a national database that was designed just so the public would be able to locate projects easily and in a consistent way across forests. So you are even able to ask questions like how many projects used HFRA in Oregon? Which helps both the FS and interest groups, legislators and pretty much everyone.
      Note that you can also subscribe to an RSS feed on the projects for the Williamette.

      • Sharon, The point of the public comment (from a retiree in the community) was not that Goose Project was hard to find but that the URL is hard to share.

        The Forest Service URL for the Goose Project is 325 characters long and fills 5 lines of a letter sized page (in 12 point Times Roman).

        Imagine trying to put that in a letter to the editor.

        You really think there is no room for improvement in those monstrous URLs?

    • The Saga continues. Today I received an email from one of the local community members reporting …

      “yesterday we received a letter from the FS about the upcoming meeting containing this sentence: ‘Maps and other information will be available at the public meeting and are currently available on our website at: http://go.usa.gov/UVo

      “Click on that and see where it leads you. This would be funny if we weren’t talking about our tax dollars at work.”

      Yeah, the FS found a way to provide a shorter URL.
      Whoops, it leads to a website that says “No documents are available for this project.”

  4. Sharon: I have been designing websites for nearly 20 years. I am educated. So far as I know, I have never heard of SOPA before and would avoid clicking such an acronym like the plague. I know what NEPA is, but that makes me an unusual person among the non-agency population. I think I remember HFRA from about five years ago, and still have never figured out the RSS thing.

    Sure, maybe I’m an idiot for avoiding acronyms and the agencies that seem addicted to them, but that just puts me in common with millions of other computer users that: 1) have no idea what these acronyms represent, and/or 2) avoid acronym manufacturers whenever possible because of their long track record of confusing titles, ephermeral acronyms, and broken links.

    My proposed URL would be longer than Doug’s, but would make it easier to build from in the future, and simple for anyone to locate, with or without Google, SOPA, HFRA, and RSS:

    http://www.USDA/National_Forests/Willamette/2011_Goose_Project

    That way there could be Geese listed as Projects for each national forest that had them, and for year after year, in case people couldn’t think of new names or acronyms or didn’t want to consult the list of thousnads of names that have already been used.

    (Yes, I know I used URL and USDA. Sorry.)

  5. OK GUYS…yes we have seen Sharon’ s arguement that if a member of the public could have simply found the website and suddenly have become enriched with all of the information about the Goose project. All you have to do is click on the NEPA and SOPA and go to the Goose project and there you go. First you would need to know that a project called the Goose project existed and then what a NEPA and a SOPA are and sure enough, there it would be. As a person who is a property owner adjacent to this project, I can tell you that I wish I had had reason to look this up. There was not a ghost of a clue that such a project was anywhere near the horizon and therefore no reason to go searching for it. Had the deforest service given us a shred of information to tip us off that this project existed, I can assure you that I and my neighbors in the community would have been all over it…when there was still time to effect some change. The FS did not want us to interfere. They conspired to keep this project under wraps until it was far too late for us to do anything about it. Even more recently, after the news was out, they allowed a unit sale to close, knowing full well that an effort was being made to block this monster. This closed sale (just one week ago today) makes a set aside much more complicated…and yes they knew that. Now, they are organizing a public meeting. At this meeting, they will tell us all about the project and offer to listen to any specific concerns we may have. They have no obligation to follow through on any specific concerns and we are not armed with the science necessary to make significant recommendations (keep in mind, we have only known about the project for about 3 weeks now). This project needs to be studied much more carefully. Answers need to be provided to a myriad of questions raised in the Oregon wild appeal and the FS EA itself. This project needs to be stopped. If the FS wants to proceed, they need to provide a full EIS and make that EIS available to the public with adequate time for meaningful comment.

    By the way Sharon, what is your connection to the Forest Service?

    Jerry Gilmour

    • Jerry, that’s not what I said.

      I was responding to Doug’s comment #7 above : “As a teaser, I provide this excerpt which makes a strong point:

      “6) This brings up the subject of web addresses and their potential use in withholding information from the public. Indeed, the pertinent Goose Project documents are elsewhere on the USFS website, but try to imagine a local resident, who had somehow become aware of the project, chatting over the back fence with a neighbor and saying, “Oh, you ought to check out the Goose Project. Just go to your computer’s web browser and type in:

      http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3gDfxMDT8MwRydLA1cj72BTMwMTAwjQL8h2VAQArb-_RA!!/?ss=110618&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&navid=130110000000000&pnavid=130000000000000&accessDB=true&position=Project*&groupid=29829&ttype=projectdetail&pname=Willamette%20National%20Forest-%20Projects

      “That’s a little unwieldy, wouldn’t you say? Having designed a few websites, I know perfectly well that the project could have had an address like:

      http://www.fs.fed.us/mckenzie/gooseproject

      I pointed out, not that I expected people to go on the internet and find it, but that there is an easier web address for the project. I bolded the part I was responding to. I thought I might be providing a useful comment for people who had found difficult web addresses and wanted to share easy ones.

      My day job is currently with the Forest Service in Colorado.

  6. Of couse you work for the forest service and you are unbiased by night when you write your blog. The fact remains that nobody (save some FS insiders and folks who have much more insight than the average citizen in these matters) in McKenzie Bridge was aware that this project was on the drawing board. Some of us have to make a living and we don’t have the time and energy to look through the FS websites to see if there is something coming up. Your assertion that we folks should have looked at the NEPA and SOPA tabs shows how out of touch you are with the average citizen. You work for the FS, of course you can find a project on their web site! Ironically, there is a public meeting upcoming and notices have been mailed out to notify us. Apparently, the FS does know how to use the mail.

    The Forest Service has an obligation to notify their neighbors, much the same as a private party has an obligation to notify his neighbors of an impending land use action…in fact, much more so. Once the FS takes an action, if that action damages the neighbor, that neighbor is faced with suing the federal government…a much more daunting task than suing his civilian neighbor and much, much more expensive, not to mention risky. The FS has an obligation to the citizens it is supposed to serve to be fair, forthright and open in communication. The case of the Goose project reeks of closed door corruption.

    The FS says it wants to build a relationship of cooperation and collaboration with the public, yet it continues to spit in the eye of those whom it is supposed to serve. You can put a pleasant face on what is happening with the Goose project but the fact is, it is a crooked endeavor and now that it is exposed for that, it should be stopped, thoroughly analyzed by an EIS and designed with the collaboration of the public (the real public) for the good of the public…and that includes us neighbors. Jerry Gilmour

  7. Jerry- You seem to be intentionally misunderstanding what I am saying. Again, I wasn’t expecting neighbors to be on the Williamette project site, I was just saying if you want to find shorter URL’s it’s sometimes possible.

    My understanding is that generally with projects neighbors are scoped. I don’t know why that didn’t happen. It may “reek of closed door corruption”, I don’t know, I hope you’ve asked them the reason.

    Finally, I don’t know that it needs to be in an EIS to take the neighbors’ opinions into account. Taking a look at other projects in the same area of about the same size here, it looks like many of them were successfully completed using an EA.

    • I wonder how many 35 million board foot timber sales in Montana are done using EAs.

      In our EA comments we made a request for an EIS based on the following considerations.

      4. Based on the effects described in the EA and the effects not disclosed in the EA, this project seems to cause significant environmental effects and therefore requires an EIS. Evidence of significance includes:

      a. delaying (or maybe even preventing) the attainment of snag habitat objectives for 50 years or more,

      b. logging almost 1000 acres of suitable spotted owl habitat,

      c. downgrading almost 500 acres of spotted owl habitat,

      d. degrading the quality of spotted owl dispersal habitat by reducing the recruitment of dead wood structure over the next 100 years or more,

      e. more than 350 acres of unnecessary logging in riparian reserves (more than half of which is in mature fire-regenerated forests) which will result in a long-term reduction in recruitment of coarse wood,

      f. logging in a large ecologically significant unroaded area that would contribute unique and important ecological functions (such as natural levels of dead wood recruitment) if left unlogged,

      g. significant and long-term reduction in forest carbon storage that will exacerbate climate change,

      h. more than 350 acres of regeneration harvest and “gaps” that does not mimic natural processes because it leaves too little structure to provide dead wood values,

      i. 9 miles of road construction with attendant adverse impacts on soil-water-weeds-wildlife,

      j. putting logs on the market when demand and prices are very low thus downward pressure on log prices and harming the incomes of small woodland owners, etc.

  8. The bottom line is that its dishonest to claim that the purpose of this project is to “reduce wildfire danger.” That is crap and if that had been the purpose of the project, the FS would not have been afraid to involve local citizens in the permitting and planning process.

  9. Pingback: Goosed: Community Outraged by Surprise Logging Launch « A New Century of Forest Planning

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