Timber town opts for water over logs

  • Mackey Creek watershed near Detroit, Ore.

    Diane Sylvain
  • 1996 landslide starts from logging road near Devils Creek

    Trygve Steen photo

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 sky.

"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 Breitenbush River.

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.

Not everyone agreed with the city council.

"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 water."

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 there.

"It devastated the families financially," Millican says.

Yet 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 Lake.

"Now, once again, they're going to have to make a big transition," Millican says.

A region looks to the hills

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 watershed.

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 manufacturing processes.

"That's the reason they're here, because of that water," says Tina Schweichert, Salem's water resource coordinator.

Salem enlisted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to commission a congressional investigation on the effects of logging and road-building on municipal water.

Patty Rodgers, a spokeswoman for the Willamette National Forest, insists the agency can protect water quality while continuing to log in an environmentally sensitive way.

"We've come 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 past.

Environmentalists aren't so sure. "You can't log a hillside without erosion," says Tim Hermach of the Native Forest Council in Eugene.

The Forest Service says it's not so simple. "There are clearly folks who are using the watershed issue as the next spotted owl," Rodgers says.

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.

"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 ...

* Bill Funk, Detroit Ranger District, HC 73, Box 320, Mill City, OR 97360 (503) 854-3366.

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