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Anatomy of a Clearcut
Entry 11: February 8, 2015
SDS Lumber is a timber company operating out of the town of Bingen,
Washington. At the end of 2011, it logged 110 acres of land above the Historic
Columbia River Highway State Trail in Mosier. The site consists of two
parcels, about one third owned by SDS and the remaining two thirds owned by the
Warm Springs Tribe. Trees on the site were burned in the 2009 Microwave
fire, and a clearcut operation was conducted to salvage the burned
The resulting deforested
area was an eyesore that appeared seemingly overnight and angered
residents, who had no idea it was happening. The site was on land in
the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area designated as General Management
Area (GMA) Open Space, where timber harvest was thought to be
prohibited. The logged area was visible from towns, trails, and the
major highways in both Oregon and Washington. The historic highway trail's character
was seriously impacted (Figure 1).
The Columbia Gorge Commission, the agency managing the Scenic Area,
declined to take any enforcement action. Fueled by public outrage, a controversy
erupted that is unresolved to this day, owing to an unclear legal
framework for logging within the Scenic Area that is subject to varying
complicating the issue is that some of the land is tribal land, and
therefore outside the Commission's jurisdiction.
There are plans to strengthen the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA) in
the 2015 legislative session. State Senator Michael Dembrow of
Portland and state Representative Ann Lininger of Lake Oswego are involved
in the revisions. Oregon's law is more lenient than those in
neighboring states. The law is so weak that on January 30,
authorities rejected Oregon's plan for reducing nonpoint pollution along
the coast, much of it from logging operations.
Clearcut Map Key (virtual tour)
On March 7, 2014, I conducted a photographic survey of the clearcut
that allows a virtual tour of the land in detail. To get started,
click on a number or non-overlapping part of a red rectangle below to
open the detailed image for the part of the clearcut you wish to view. Once the image
opens in the OneDrive viewer, click "View Original" and then click on
the image (the mouse pointer will become
a magnifying glass) to view it in a browser window at the highest resolution. Note
that original images may take some time to download. Below
the map key are observations for many frames that highlight areas of interest. Because the key is a panoramic
image, scroll your browser window to the right to see all of
Click here to skip observations and read the
1399, a herd of four deer is browsing in the lower left
corner, useful for size reference. Fence wire and posts are visible at the upper
left corner at the ridgetop. Deer activity could impact the survival of seedlings.
Two deer are at the top left corner of frame 1401.
left of center, a gully and slopes running
toward it show rocky areas where erosion has taken place.
Frame 1410 shows the apex of the yarding scars.
The ground in the scars
is bare, with no topsoil or vegetation present. Some subsoil, charcoal,
and large areas of exposed rocks are visible. There is no indication of
effort to restore soil or vegetation cover in the scars. Mr. Behling
pointed out that the operator hand-dug some water bars to deflect water
flowing downhill and these are visible in the frame.
Two deer are at the bottom of frame 1412 in the center.
ridgetop, four areas of bare soil are noted, from 60 to 260 feet long and
roughly 20 feet wide. These could be from limited yarding activity.
1413, five deer are at the top center; two of the deer are also shown in the
overlapping portion of frame
1412. Several exposed and eroded rocky areas
are present, especially at the lower left corner. The deer are likely the
same ones in frame 1399 since the two frames adjoin.
bottom of the yarding scars in frame 1414 are extensive rocky areas indicative of
erosion, rockfall, or soil disturbance.
yarding scars end in Frame 1416.
Eroded, rocky areas are present where the
Seedlings are growing at the bottom edge of frame
1419. They are dense
in the areas where present, indicating the growth is natural rather than
planted. In frame
1420, there are also some seedlings at the bottom of the
frame, and a few higher up.
Along the left edge of frame
1422 are a number of burned stumps. A yarding scar with large eroded areas lies to
the right of the stumps.
A yarding scar is visible along the right edge of frame 1425 with
exposed subsoil and some rocky areas.
Frame 1426 is steeply sloped and there is very little topsoil. There
are significant rocky and eroded areas.
1428, rocky areas inside unlogged forest at the bottom of the
clearcut in swales indicate erosion or rockfall since there would be no
soil displaced from yarding at that location. See the bottom of the frame,
right of center.
Frame 1430 shows the middle of a yarding scar.
Topsoil in the scar has been scraped away. Along the bottom of the frame
are areas of fresh rock from rockfall or erosion, and some areas of older
rock that have moss covering.
Frame 1431 continues the yarding scar from 1430.
Again, the topsoil is
poor or absent. Moss grows on the rocks in the small group of standing
trees at upper left. The remaining areas have bare rock with some dormant
grasses growing in patchy, poor topsoil.
Forest Practices Act (OFPA) is Oregon's governing law for timber operations. It requires that clearcuts be replanted
within two years of harvest. My motivation for taking the photos of
the Mosier site was that in the fall of 2013 observations indicated that replanting might not
have been conducted in compliance with the law. After completing the survey, I contacted
Chet Behling, the regional forester for this area and shared the results
with him. He reviewed the findings and indicated that the site is in
compliance with the OFPA, as he has personally inspected it. My tree
counts were lower than his because seedlings are commonly planted next to
stumps, and many were hidden from view in the pictures.
Since state authorities disagreed with my findings, I did not go
any further in making the analysis public. The law is the law, and
the Department of Forestry said SDS was following it. However, with a new opportunity to change the law, making the information
available might help to strengthen protections in
lands where scenic preservation is important. There are many
weaknesses in the OFPA:
|A lack of public notification when logging affects scenic areas|
|No restrictions on how logging is done in scenic areas, allowing
clearcutting rather than less damaging methods|
|Inadequate erosion control on steep slopes such as the
Mosier site and others throughout the state where logging has caused massive landslides that
have damaged roads, poured silt into waterways, and killed some people |
|Poor regulation of stream buffers causing harm to fish|
|Lax controls on pesticide application causing harm to fish, plants,
animals, and people living near logging areas |
|No representatives from the conservation community on the board of
Forest Resources Institute |
If looking at this clearcut leaves you wondering whether our
forest regulations are strong enough, remember that this is a site that is
in compliance. Ones that aren't are worse than this. Any well-managed timber company wants trees to grow back as fast as possible on land
they own. But today that's where their
responsibility ends. Logging can't be isolated from surrounding
lands. Timber companies have an
obligation to the community to understand the needs and expectations of
people who see logged areas and live with them every day, people using forests for
hunting, fishing, or other forms of recreation, people with homes where flooding
and erosion can damage property, or people and animals who are exposed to chemical sprays
impact their health. Managing a forest
isn't just about growing trees; it's about being sure the rights of people
living outside the cut boundary are respected.
companies do cut trees, and that process can be ugly. As businesses,
they follow the law and do nothing more that could reduce profits.
So if we want clearcutting to be less damaging to scenic resources, the
only option is to improve the law. Some useful recommendations are possible after considering the
appearance of the clearcut, the legal ambiguity of the regulations in a
scenic area, and the law's rather limited penalties, which create an
incentive for timber companies to behave in ways that keep the public in
the dark, allowing them to cut first and answer questions later.
Logging operations on land within
designated scenic corridors such as GMA
Open Space should either be clearly prohibited, or require advance
public notice and be subject to additional scrutiny and public
comment. If logging is allowed, mandatory inspection and
verification of replanting should be required immediately after the
OFPA statutory planting clock expires. This step would enhance
compliance with reforestation requirements. Within scenic areas,
government personnel and private citizens should conduct inspections
together to ensure transparency, with inspection results open to the
To speed recovery within scenic corridors,
inspections should be conducted more frequently to ensure seedlings
are healthy and growing as quickly as possible. Threats to
seedling health must be addressed immediately.
The OFPA should incorporate provisions
that reduce the risk of landslides or floods and improve water
habitat, soil, and scenic resources when the land has scenic
importance. These provisions should include preservation of
living trees when logging after a fire, leaving more standing trees
per acre, efforts to reduce erosion on
steep slopes, and measures to improve the land's appearance after
logging that do not impact seedling growth.
Pesticide contamination must be
There should be at least two directors
from the conservation community on the board of the Oregon Forest
Another note is that the fine for
violation of the OFPA reforestation requirements is only $5,000 per
incident, an amount that could be considered a negligible cost of
doing business for an operation of this size. A possible
enforcement tool could be to increase the fine for a violation and make it proportional to the revenue an
operation generates. Money from penalties in excess of $5,000
could be directed to resource enhancement in the affected areas. A rough estimate of the value of the total timber
harvested in the area surveyed is $807,000. A stiffer penalty
for failure to comply with the law is needed, since it is vanishingly
small in this situation.
What You Can Do
or email your Oregon legislators to tell them you want better
protections for scenic land in the OFPA. Mention the points
above, and any scenic impacts that you've seen personally. We
are in a critical time for improving forest protections in Oregon and
may not see an opportunity like this again for many years.
This is an archived article. Click
here to return to the blog's home page.