Failing forestry: Oregon wanted to clearcut above their water supply. The plan’s on hold for now: Oregonian Story

By Ted Sickinger
Sept. 28, 2019

The Oregonian

The first Roger Neugebauer heard about the Norriston Heights timber sale was two days before the end of the public comment period, which closed May 2. A neighbor emailed him and described the Oregon Department of Forestry’s plan to clearcut the 77-acre forest plot.

Neugebauer was stunned. The tract of timber sits directly across Highway 101 from his house in Arch Cape, just south of Cannon Beach. He hadn’t heard a peep from the agency. Neither had most of the owners of 20 neighboring homes, all of whom draw their water from gravity fed cisterns in the forest collecting groundwater under the trees slated for harvest.

“They claimed they couldn’t inform us because it was too complicated,” Neugebauer said. “They could have printed 20 copies of a letter and hired a high school kid in Cannon Beach to put it in front of everyone’s door and they would have got the communication done. But they couldn’t figure that out.”

“It’s not hard to find us,” added another neighbor, Jay Haladay. “We’re right across the damn street.”

On Monday, agency officials will hold their first public meeting about the sale with the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners. And, capitulating to angry neighbors, it will announce that it plans to delay the sale for a year in order to work with locals and finds some “mutually acceptable solutions” to their concerns.

The agency’s policy on timber sales requires a 45-day public comment period, but doesn’t specify which parties should be notified prior to or during that period. In this case, however, officials now acknowledge that they screwed up.

“We could have done better as an agency to reach out earlier in this case,” said Jason Cox, an agency spokesman. “We’re committed to improving our engagement both with the general public as well as specific parties with potential concerns.”

But for the agency these days, time is money. And based on a forestry department report, Norriston Heights is a potentially lucrative sale. It requires a nominal investment in roads — $43,200 — and would bring in an estimated $981,750. That’s the kind of sale that agency leaders have explicitly directed foresters to focus on as they try to dig out of deep financial problems by identifying “high net revenue” sales.

Translation: Easily accessible clearcuts that don’t require big investments.

The state forest division has struggled since the 2008 recession to find a path to financial viability. Meanwhile, the agency at large is mired in a cash flow crisis that has it borrowing heavily from state forest cash reserves to float nearly $100 million it has failed to collect from wildfire costs dating back to 2015.

The Norriston Heights sale also would be good news for Clatsop County and its local taxing districts, as they get nearly two-thirds of the net revenue from state forestland harvests. Clatsop and 14 other counties rely on money from state harvests to pay for basic services. They also depend on the logging and mill jobs the harvests provide their communities.

Cox, the agency spokesman, emphasized that point in an email to a neighbor who raised concerns about Norriston Heights in July: “The area required minimal infrastructure investment, is of relatively simple complexity and offers a high rate of return to benefit local services like schools, transportation, health care, law enforcement and rural fire protection.”

“Simple complexity” is agency lingo for the type of forest with smaller, relatively young trees. “Complex forest,” by contrast, are those lands with prime habitat that the agency is aiming to protect. According the agency’s Forest Management Plan, it is actively managing state lands so 30% of forests will grow to become complex at some undefined point in the future.

But it’s a goal it is largely failing to accomplish. In real life, the percentage of complex forests is going down. It currently stands at just over 10%.

The Norriston Heights unit was classified as complex forest until last spring, when the agency decided to cut it. And a portion of the tract was part of designated conservation areas until 2010, when financial problems led it to reduce the amount of public forests across the state it aimed to protect from 40% to 30%, freeing up more land for harvest. This spring, the agency resurveyed the plot and designated it as “understory,” a less complex forest structure that can typically be logged without much blowback from conservation groups.

Agency officials said the plot was resurveyed using agency protocols. It was previously clearcut in the 1950s, and they said, the 68-year-old plot had yet to attain complex structure.

Risks to habitat, drinking water

The stretch of woods near Arch Cape proposed for clearcut is the backdrop to one the most popular tourist destinations on the coast. Three quarters of a million visitors stop each year at Arcadia Beach and Hug Point state recreation sites that bracket the stand and countless more drive by on Highway 101. That’s a social value the agency is supposed to take into account under its statutory mandate to manage forests for the “greatest permanent value” to Oregonians.

Cannon Beach Mayor Sam Steidel emphasized that point in a September letter to the agency.

“The Norriston Heights property is unique because it is the only state forestland on the coast in Clatsop County,” he wrote. “Because of its special value – scenic, wildlife and drinking water – we ask that you cancel the sale and permanently protect it as high value conservation land.”

The sale area directly adjoins a stand of giant Western Red Cedars containing Oregon’s largest tree – the Arcadia Cedar — which is already a protection area for the endangered Marbled Murrelet. The presence of an endangered species nearby — and possibility that logging would harm its habitat — considerably ups the ante on any timber harvest.

Department surveys in 2003 showed “significant behavior indicative of stand occupancy” directly to the north. Murrelets were also detected flying over the harvest unit. But the department says that was evidence of presence, not occupancy. Cox, the agency spokesman, said the sale area was surveyed again in 2017 and 2018 and no murrelets were observed.

Yet there’s no question that the land holds valuable water. The Arch Cape neighborhood’s supply is piped from cisterns that sit about 50 to 75 feet into the woods, under Highway 101 and into private pump houses that filter and pressurize it for supply to the homes. It’s already a precarious, low-tech and high-maintenance system, prone to clogging year round and low flows when rain is scarce in the summer.

Neighbors worry the clearcut could ruin the natural groundwater filtration and further decrease water flows. They’re also anxious that pesticide spraying will poison the water they do get, making the neighborhood unlivable.

It’s not an unfounded concern. They need only look south to Rockaway Beach, where clearcutting on private land in the Jetty Creek watershed left high levels of a cancer-causing byproduct in the town’s drinking water, and aerial spraying left traces of a potent herbicide in the creek. The department has received similar complaints about clearcuts from residents to the south in Neahkahnie. Indeed, mud from hillside clearcuts and logging roads threaten drinking water up and down the Oregon coast.

For Norriston Heights, agency geotechnical analyses acknowledge that the harvest might decrease summer flows, which it says would be most pronounced in the decade after harvest. But it also suggested that its plan to replant the area with fewer trees than are currently there may result in more available water. Agency officials also told neighbors that they would establish stream buffers larger than those required by the state law and the agency’s normal standards to minimize landslide risks and the impacts of sediment on their collection systems.

Liz Dent, chief of the state forest division, said the agency had listened to feedback and modified the sale accordingly. “In this case,” she said, “we put together a timber sale that exceeded our own standards.”

Thomas Merrell, who manages the waters systems for many Arch Cape neighbors, has a more cynical view after dealing with the agency for two decades.

“They look at you nod their head and say they can do what they want and that’s the way it’s going to be,” he said. “Historically, that’s the way it works.”

Thomas Merrell is a water consultant who helps manage water systems for many homeowners near Arch Cape. He and other neighbors are worried that a clearcut would harm their community’s only water source.

Neighbors revolt

When the Arch Cape neighbors did learn of the plan, they organized an informational meeting for July 2. It was supposed to be the agency’s show, with a district forester there to explain the plan. About 65 people showed up. But at the last minute, the forester who was supposed to attend decided he wasn’t coming.

“He had obtained an e-mail that had been circulating about ODF being at Hug Point the morning of July 2nd to discuss the clear cut,” said Nadine Mathis Basha, the neighbor who organized the meeting. “He told me that he wasn’t going to meet with those people who were not even affected by the clear cut. I don’t remember exactly what he said but that is the essence.”

Dent says that’s a mischaracterization of the forester’s response. She said he didn’t go because some of the neighbors, as well as the water manager for many of the systems, couldn’t be there.

With the agency’s decision on Wednesday to defer the timber sale for a year, locals say they’ll use the time to hire their own experts to evaluate landslide and water risks.

The agency’s reversal came after inquiries from legislators as well as pressure at the Board of Forestry. Haladay, the Norriston Heights neighbor, asked the board at its early September meeting whether the agency had followed its own protocols when reclassifying the forest. He described the agency’s lack of outreach to affected homeowners and asked forestry officials to cancel the sale.

“ODF needs to come back and say we didn’t do this right,” he said.

That caught the attention of board member Brenda McComb, who asked State Forester Peter Daugherty whether the agency had any response.

Daugherty said the agency was still considering the sale and would be holding an information meeting with the Clatsop County Commission to discuss it. But he said this was the first he’d heard of any formal request to cancel the sale.

It certainly wasn’t the first such request to the agency. Halladay made the same request to the agency in early July. Thirteen environmental groups also had asked the agency in May to pull the sale, raising concerns about coastal erosion and Marbled Murrelet habitat. Another advocacy group, The Ecola Creek Awareness Project, made the same request during the agency’s public comment period in May.

Board member Jim Kelly told Daugherty at the September meeting that he thought Norriston Heights was an unusual situation given its proximity to homes, and the sale might merit more attention from the agency.

The forestry board is the agency’s policy oversight board. But Daugherty cut off any further conversation by citing a specific section of Oregon Administrative Rules that limit the board’s authority to second guess particular timber sales.

“Just to be real clear,” he concluded, “you’re not directing or giving me any advice in this matter. Thanks.”