The vast old-growth forests of the Cascade Range built the tiny town of Detroit, Ore., and kept three local sawmills bustling. Every year, residents counted on timber from the Willamette National Forest to fuel the economy much as they waited for spring snowmelt to fill the local reservoir. The Forest Service, and the spring snowmelt, always provided.
Now, those forests are logged over and the
mills have closed. In summer, there are more speedboats zipping
around the local reservoir than logging trucks heading for a mill.
Summer cottages and trophy homes outnumber modest family bungalows.
Then two years ago, the snowmelt also changed:
early rainstorms sent a slurry of mud and boulders down Mackey
Creek, which supplies the town's water. The spring catastrophe
created a new awareness.
In this town of 345
people, two visions for one place are colliding. The debate centers
on three timber sales that are planned on public land in the
mountains above Detroit. Critics of the logging say decades of
clear-cuts have harmed the watershed and ruined the view. No longer
held in the earth by trees, water runs off quickly, they say, and
the silt fouls the drinking water. These days, summer visitors come
for forests and clean water, the critics say, not clear-cuts and
the drone of helicopters ferrying logs through the
"If anything happened to
our water supply I don't know what we'd do," says Detroit Mayor
Martha Millican. "Our concern is just for the water. We simply are
protecting our watersheds."
One of the three
timber sales is upstream of the town's summer water source on the
Millican's position has
surprised neighbors, since she once worked as a clerk for the
Forest Service and her late husband worked at the mill. Some were
counting on her to back logging. Instead, she and the city council
voted to tell the Detroit Ranger District they wanted the
cancellation of three colorfully named sales: High and Dry, Windy
Canyon and Bould Puppy timber sales.
everyone agreed with the city
"That's not how our
community feels," insists Connie Erickson, who owns the town's
grocery store. "That letter might as well have been written by
somebody from Earth First!'
But the 1996
scenario had seemed straight out of the Earth First! Journal. The
muddy onslaught trashed the town's water system, and the patchwork
of clearcuts across steep mountains got the blame. After it took
more than $10,000 to fix the town's plumbing, the experience made
some residents wary of more logging.
Townspeople, the mayor among them, talk about the old days, the
years the Detroit Ranger District had such an appetite for logs
that clear-cuts planned for the "90s got cut in the "80s.
"Through the "60s, "70s, and
"80s, they saw their watersheds increasingly being logged and it
was all primarily clear-cutting," says Mark Hubbard of the Oregon
Natural Resources Council, a nonprofit activist group based in
Portland. "They cut so much that any amount of more cutting and
road-building is going to have a detrimental effect on drinking
After 1987, however, timber harvests on
the Detroit district fell from155 million board-feet to a low of 13
million board-feet in 1994. That's made for tough times
"It devastated the
families financially," Millican says.
Detroit bustles; it seems prosperous. The tiny population of
year-round locals is eclipsed by carloads of vacationers who have
built second homes near the cool waters of the reservoir. They
boost the population to 2,000 or more each summer.
Mayor Millican says her town must now adapt to
a new future as it did in 1951, when town boosters moved Detroit
uphill to make way for Detroit
"Now, once again,
they're going to have to make a big transition," Millican says.
A region looks to the
Detroit's watershed is not unique; other
cities west of the Cascades are taking a closer look at their
watersheds. The Eugene, Ore., city council has asked the Willamette
National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management to tread lightly
in the upper reaches of the McKenzie River watershed. The Lake
Oswego, Ore., city council has asked Forest Service Chief Mike
Dombeck to include the Clackamas River watershed - a region
included in President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan - in its
proposed road-building moratorium. And in Sandy, Ore., the city
council has asked the Forest Service and the BLM to make water
quality its top priority in its Alder Creek
Just 55 miles downstream of Detroit,
on the North Santiam River, concerns over the same headwaters led
city officials in Salem, Ore., the state's capital, to confront
federal land managers in rainy 1996. The issue was money.
Last summer, Salem spent $1.2 million upgrading
its water treatment system after a fine clay sediment lingered in
the city's water supply for six months. Salem, whose population is
115,000, also spent more than $1 million on temporary treatment
facilities and importing water from neighboring cities.
Mitsubishi Silicon America, a Salem
computer-chip maker whose manufacturing processes require pure
water, employs 1,200 people. When Salem's water failed to meet
company standards, Mitsubishi was forced to pump water from a
neighboring town through a five-inch fire hose for two weeks. The
city's low-tech and chemical-free sand-filtration system is what
helped attract Mitsubishi. Some cities have treatment plants that
can filter out high sediment loads, but such systems are more
costly and require chemicals which interfere with Mitsubishi's
"That's the reason
they're here, because of that water," says Tina Schweichert,
Salem's water resource coordinator.
enlisted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to commission a congressional
investigation on the effects of logging and road-building on
Patty Rodgers, a spokeswoman
for the Willamette National Forest, insists the agency can protect
water quality while continuing to log in an environmentally
light years," she says of old forest practices.
Of the alternatives proposed for the three disputed timber sales,
loggers would clearcut a maximum of 84 acres and thin another 2,000
acres. The agency plans to obliterate some old roads and says it
won't build any new permanent roads for the sales. Rodgers says
it's a new way of logging that leaves a smaller footprint on the
ground and keeps sediment from flowing downstream as it did in the
Environmentalists aren't so sure. "You
can't log a hillside without erosion," says Tim Hermach of the
Native Forest Council in Eugene.
Service says it's not so simple. "There are clearly folks who are
using the watershed issue as the next spotted owl," Rodgers
As for the fine sediment that lingered in
Salem's water supply for six months, Rodgers says natural events
were sending such sediments downstream long before roads and
clear-cuts laced the steep mountainsides.
Environmentalists say public-land managers still don't get
"It just makes sense to
keep the forest canopy intact as a buffer against storm events,"
says Regna Merrit, who tracks water quality issues for the Oregon
Natural Resources Council. "Even when you have these expensive
engineering solutions, there's still a need for protection of your
drinking water source."
Dustin Solberg is an HCN assistant editor.
You can contact ...
Funk, Detroit Ranger District, HC 73, Box 320, Mill City, OR 97360