Oregon Roadside Fire Salvage: Too Fast? Too Much?

This article has Arborists in the title, but the main story is about opposition by conservation groups:

Arborists say ODOT post-fires tree cutting is excessive, rushed

More than 20 conservation groups sent a letter Tuesday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opposing the post-fire roadside logging proposed or actively being carried out by federal agencies.

The roadside salvage (and cutting along power lines) I’ve seen in the Beachie Creek and Lionshead fire areas is indeed extensive, but not unusual compared to hazard tree removal in other areas.

Also, one can imagine the lawsuits should one tree that wasn’t cut falls on a car and injures or kill someone. As happened recently in California. This wasn’t a fire-killed tree, but some folks have pointed to the state and feds for failing to identify the hazard and remove the tree.


16 thoughts on “Oregon Roadside Fire Salvage: Too Fast? Too Much?”

    • Folks, here’s a short video from the Oregon Dept. of Transportation, featuring a forester/certified arborist, about roadside hazard tree removals along a state highway in the middle of the 138,000-acre Riverside Fire area.

  1. “This article has Arborists in the title, but the main story is about opposition by conservation groups.”

    Curious (and somewhat bizarre…but expected) framing there, Steve.

    Yes, the word “Arborists” is in the title of the article. It’s also clearly true that a number of arborists with decades of experience are extensively quoted in the long article, which (by the way) also includes the word “arborist” nearly 20 times.

    Funny, yet again expected, that you didn’t bother to highlight any of the quotes from arborists or extensive sections of the article covering the arborists perspective.

    Here are some of the arborist quotes you neglected to highlight while attempting to frame the article to make it seem like it was “only” about 20 conservation groups’ opposition. Also, highlighted below is a section featuring Dr. Bev Law, professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s School of Forestry (whom some people on this blog have loved to hate on).

    Matt Allen, another arborist who worked on ODOT’s hazard tree removal project in the field, says he saw the consequences of not having solid criteria for which trees should be cut.

    Allen is a certified master arborist who is tree risk assessment qualified, an additional certification known as TRAQ. He was hired in December to work for Mason Bruce & Girard, a Portland-based environmental consulting company working with CDR Maguire to identify hazard trees.

    According to ODOT, the consulting company’s role is to help check the work of CDR Maguire employees and ensure hazard trees are marked correctly for removal.

    Allen was directed to assess hazard trees along Oregon Route 138 on the North Umpqua River in Southwest Oregon, where the Archie Creek Fire burned more than 131,000 acres.

    He says the people working alongside him for CDR Maguire were not certified arborists.

    “They were a bunch of inexperienced people from the Southeast U.S. that had no idea what they were doing out there,” he said.

    Allen says he helped train these employees in tree species identification so they could enter data into a phone app that applied an algorithm to determine which trees should be marked for removal.

    The guidelines for choosing which trees were hazardous were constantly changing, he said, and the disorganized operation resulted in marking a lot of trees for removal that he didn’t consider to be hazardous.

    “Most of these trees are burned, scorched and eventually will die, but very few if any are actually hazardous at this time,” he said. “I can count on one hand how many actually hazardous trees I found after tagging close to 5,500 trees for removal.”

    Allen says he felt like the companies doing the work were trying to mark the trees as quickly as possible so they could be removed before the public had a chance to learn what was happening.

    “I’ve never seen such a mismanaged operation in my life,” he said, noting that he hasn’t worked on large-scale projects like this before but has done a lot of hazard tree assessments. “It just seemed like they were flying people out of the Southeast and throwing bodies at this project so they could continue to invoice and continue to bill out.”

    Sometimes, he said, up to a dozen employees would spend a whole day collecting sticks and debris. Meanwhile, he wasn’t hearing much from the two companies managing the project and wound up overseeing the tree assessments himself with “little to no guidance.”

    Allen submitted his resignation in mid-February and explained in a note that the project didn’t align with his values.

    “This was pushed way too fast,” he said. “From an arboriculture and forestry perspective, these trees aren’t going to be hazardous for one, two or three years. And it really just started feeling like a money grab.”

    Allen said he believes most of the trees he marked would have died and become a hazard in the future, but they were not hazardous when they were marked for removal.

    “None of them were actually a hazard tree, but they’re billing it that way,” he said. “It seems like a betrayal to the Oregon people, the indigenous people, landowners and to the natural environment.”

    Mason, Bruce & Girard did not respond to a request for comment….

    But even arborists who have only seen pictures of the trees that have been removed are raising questions about how the state is deciding which trees are posing an “immediate threat.”

    Rick Till, a certified arborist who also has tree risk assessment qualification, said the wide swaths of trees removed along the road in the Breitenbush area raised major concerns for him that hazard tree removal operations had gone astray.

    “Marking every tree in a corridor as an immediate threat to safety should be a huge red flag that something is wrong,” he said. “Blanket clear-cutting is beyond any plausible application of hazard tree assessment methodology.”

    Many of the criteria the state is using to determine whether trees are hazardous have to do with the amount of the tree that is burned or damaged by fire such as the crown, bark or roots.

    Bev Law, a professor emeritus at Oregon State University’s School of Forestry, said the external appearance of a burned tree is not a good way of judging whether it’s going to die and needs to be removed for public safety.

    “Trees are generally designed to withstand fire,” she said. “These external indicators of fire damage, such as crown scorch, can appear dramatically damaging, but actually they pose little risk to the tree’s long-term survival.”

    Instead of just looking at the outside of the tree, she said, you can assess its physiology by measuring how much water is moving through it.

    “It’s really quite simple,” she said. “It’s with an instrument that’s actually made in Corvallis. It’s much more accurate in determining what’s actually happening inside the tree.”

    Law said she recently saw the results of a hazard tree removal operation along a road near Opal Creek.

    “It looks like way too much was removed,” she said. “Some of those trees were very healthy. They obviously had no scorch on them or just a little scorch, but they looked just fine and they were stacked high on the side of the road.”

    Law, Till, Ford and Allen all agreed it can take years for burned trees to become hazardous, but the state doesn’t plan to wait that long to see which trees need to be removed.

    • Matthew, I knew I could reply on you to point out all of the points you think I ought to have made. I figured that Smokey Wire folks would read the article and judge for themselves.

      In any case, most of the dead trees may not be immediate threats — some ARE immediate threats — but they will be within a few years. If you were the responsible state or federal authority, would you wait until trees start falling en mass before taking action?

      If your house was surrounded by fire-killed trees, would you cut them down or wait until they started falling?

  2. And without that letter of opposition by conservation groups, there wouldn’t have been a story. I’m sure the groups sent copies to reporters, hoping they’d write articles about the hazard tree removals.

    • Hey Steve, since I was involved with this story toward the end, I’ll just point out that the letter of opposition was the last thing added to this article. Note that the letter was sent Tuesday, and the story came out the next morning. OPB actually delayed the release of the article so they could get that one tiny sentence included. OPB’s investigation of ODOT’s work had been happening for at least a month before that. I’m not sure if I get your angle, insisting that its all the conservation groups’ fault that we’re having this conversation?

      • Thanks so much for adding some important context and facts Michael.

        It seems very clear to me that Steve (and some other people on this blog) are upset with Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Oregonian, and other investigative journalists for investigating various timber industry shenanigans in the Beaver State over the past few years.

        Thanks to you and BARK for keeping an eye on things in Oregon. Please always feel welcome to provide your comments here, or contact me directly and I’ll always been happy to post your perspectives as a stand-alone guest column.

      • Michael, OK, my assumption about the letter was wrong.

        This quote about Matt Allen, an arborist who worked on the hazard tree removal project, highlights the crux of the matter:

        “Allen said he believes most of the trees he marked would have died and become a hazard in the future, but they were not hazardous when they were marked for removal.”

        So the question is when these hazards will be removed — now or when they start breaking and falling. Why is this controversial?

  3. I read this article earlier today but didn’t have time to write a comment. I’m glad I waited and now have the benefit of reading the comments made in the interim.

    Based on the quotes attributed to arborist Matt Allen it sounds like ODOT has been managing a highly questionable project. That’s very concerning when a project is on Federal land that many people are interested in; haphazard work does nothing to increase public confidence in federal or state agencies. It’s unfortunate because ODOT actually did a good job with roadside hazard tree removal along Interstate 84 in the Columbia River Gorge in the aftermath of the Eagle Creek Fire. Whoever did the marking for cutting was careful to leave patches of green trees rather than going overboard and taking everything that may have been scorched. The trees that survived the fire can still be seen along the side of I-84.

    As an aside to Steve Wilent, a lack of confidence in and trust of land managing agencies is a key reason why conservation groups keep a sharp eye on proposed projects; they’ve learned the hard way that agencies don’t always do a good job. I know Steve likes to stir the pot on things like this so I’m not surprised by his comment re: the letter from conservation groups.

    As Matt Allen and Bev Law point out there are methodologies that can be used to evaluate whether or not a tree is in fact hazardous. I’m sure things have evolved significantly since I was a U.S. Forest Service forester and participated in the Region 6 Hazard tree evaluation training in 1979. The training was developed by the regional pathologist and other specialists and was intended primarily for people who were managing campgrounds and other developed recreation sites where the presence of actual hazard trees was a concern.

    Although the methodologies and our knowledge have evolved since I was trained to do Hazard tree evaluations there’s one important element that I suspect hasn’t changed; how long will people be exposed to the risk of a tree falling? A large Doug fir with a pronounced lean and a conk on it was judged to be more of a risk if it was leaning over a campsite than if it was along a trail or campground access road. Why? Duration of exposure to the hazard was a key factor in determining whether or not to remove a tree. People sitting at the picnic table or sleeping in a tent in the campsite would be exposed for many hours whereas people walking or driving by would be exposed for significantly less time.

    My hunch is that ODOT is cutting heavily now because they don’t want to deal with roadside trees that may fall in the future and present a maintenance challenge. It’s more convenient for them to do a linear roadside clear-cut now rather than only removing the trees that are obviously hazardous at present. Back to the question of how long will people be exposed to the potential hazard of a particular tree; unless there are parking pull outs along a road most people can be expected to drive through the potential “hazard zone” fairly quickly and thus have minimal risk. That means that fewer trees may actually need to be removed.

    Some readers of this blog would be upset if a silviculturist developed a haphazard prescription and marking rules for a large area of National Forest land. Those folks should not be surprised when some of us are upset about a relatively large project that seems to be haphazard, lacking clear prescriptions for marking and is being implemented, in part, by people who have no experience in PNW forests. That combo is a recipe for a poor project outcome and further erosion of the public’s trust of agencies. That’s sad because we know enough to do a much better job! We need to learn from past mistakes.

  4. Ironically, no one is talking about Dr. Smith’s salvage guidelines, ‘re-imagined’ about 15 years ago. There was also a fairly recent re-work of Region 6’s roadside hazard tree guidelines. No one seems to be talking about those items.

    • Hmm, so it’s an ODOT project, and it sounds like they didn’t use the federal R6 roadside hazard tree guidelines? (Larry, maybe that’s implied?) So maybe they thought “hey, let’s get this done once so we don’t have to keep coming back, making taxpayers pay and risking making a mistake.” Maybe their lawyers suggested this as the safest option. Perhaps they didn’t realize there was a potential Timber Wars Drama aspect to the project.

      What’s confusing to me is the letter, which is about federal lands and questions how the feds are going to do hazard tree analysis… but since we’ve seen hazard tree analyses get litigated, e.g. in California, we know the feds have to do NEPA. So is this concern ahead of any NEPA document? I’m confused.

      • There’s also the idea that once the hazard trees are on the ground, most of the eco’s concerns would become moot. I’m not a fan of ‘smoke and mirrors’ finagling to get a desired outcome. I prefer total transparency. Looking at some of the pictures, there are plenty of trees that would meet the USFS guidelines. I do think there is a lot of potential for borderline trees turning completely brown in the next 2 months. Designating entire stands ‘by description’ isn’t a good way to go. Apparently, the Forest Service is OK with ODOT doing just that.

        • I don’t know who is legally responsible for what when it comes to state highways crossing federal lands, maybe someone else does?

      • These highways run through many different land ownerships, not just Forest Service managed land. The Forest Service is in charge of managing road-side hazards on Forest Service roads. ODOT is responsible for management of the highway right-of-way.

    • Region 6 has both “hazard tree” and “danger tree” guidelines. There is thought of combining these, but that is a work in progress. Danger trees refer to trees where imminent failure of the tree is likely – for example, decay that has compromised more than a certain amount of the bole or a burned out catface on a tree that has left very little solid wood to hold up the tree.
      There are also guidelines for salvage (I think those are the ones that were just reworked). The salvage guidelines are for determining which trees are likely to die.

  5. Having traveled these corridors several times and as recent as this week and there is no end to the amount of trees that need to be removed. Of course we get a laugh out of 20 people with hard hats and clip boards watching two cutters work while traffic is held up.
    It appears that this fire burned so fast and was so hot it killed just about everything. I think it only makes sense to remove all the potential hazard trees. So much of the landscape on the public lands will be left untouched that the worries of the environmental community are unfounded.
    I believe our time would be better spent preparing for the next fires than trying to stop the cutting of roadside hazard trees.


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