Land trade threatens trails and trees

Oregon plans to trade away an intact ecosystem


CLATSOP COUNTY, Ore. - Norm Wentworth hikes through a section of Clatsop State Forest, along a trail he built. On either side of the trail, wherever morning sun leaks down to illuminate the forest floor, a lush carpet of oxalis glows gently green.

In the past decade, Wentworth has forged 11 miles of hiking and biking trails in the hills near Astoria, Ore. He rides them just about every day, and works on them, rain or shine.

"I've read somewhere that the difference between madness and a hobby is a fine line," says Wentworth.

Locals call them "Norm's trails," a tribute to their architect, who built them on old skid roads, once used to haul out logs. Many of the trails are built on state forest land, but that may soon change. In an effort to consolidate its scattered land holdings, the Oregon Department of Forestry wants to swap three Clatsop County parcels to a local logger in exchange for land adjacent to state forests. By February, the swap is expected to be completed, and Norm's trails will be logged.

Some critics in Clatsop County, population 34,500, say that as the focus on federal forests shifts from timber harvests to habitat and recreation, Oregonians should pay more attention to state forests as well and should stop assuming that trading trails for timber makes sense.

Consolidation vs. preservation

Since the 1940s, an Oregon mandate has required state forests to consolidate scattered holdings because isolated parcels can be hard to access and, therefore, hard to sell to timber companies. The Oregon Department of Forestry has been actively consolidating lands for the last 40 or 50 years, says Bill Lecture, assistant district forester in the Astoria District. In acreage, this swap is a gain for the state, but treewise, it's another story. The parcels in question consist predominantly of trees younger than 10 years old.

Even so, Lecture says, the proposed land exchange is good for the county.

"We're gaining over 100 acres extra," Lecture says. "And trees will grow forever. In the long run, we're getting more land, better strategically located and with higher fishery values, higher wildlife values and higher recreation values. So if you look at it on a total, it's a very good proposal."

Once a tract is traded out of public ownership, it can be clear-cut and gated to prevent entry. But will it?

Martin Nygaard, the local logger who is acquiring the three tracts, has said that he will leave roughly two trees standing for each acre logged. Cyclists and hikers would be welcome.

Even if Nygaard doesn't oblige, the forestry department has found an alternative site for biking about a mile from Claremont. Lecture says it's five times bigger, with access to the John Day and Columbia rivers.

But cyclists worry that the new site could never replace Norm's trails because the agency would rely on volunteers to pay for and build new trails. Wentworth, who has cancer, says he doesn't have the energy to create an entirely new trail system.

Furthermore, the state's mandate to manage its forests for harvest doesn't make sense ecologically, say Wentworth's neighbors Pam and Jeffrey Birmingham.

For 12 years they have lived on 20 acres adjacent to 137 acres currently up for trade. Both have degrees in forestry. Both are sick at the prospect of seeing the tract logged.

"Its importance is that it's a biologically intact ecosystem," she says. "It's not been planted, sprayed, thinned."

The tract harbors tributaries to a creek, which in turn harbors five species of endangered fish. According to Pam Birmingham, it also contains pockets of old coastal rainforest that predate the 1933 Tillamook burn that blazed through the area. A few stands are more than a century old, she says; only 1 percent of Oregon state forest lands can make that claim.

"The more I work on this, the more I come back to, we need true unmanaged areas so we don't forget how nature really works," she says.

Unlike federal forests, Oregon's state forests have no wilderness reserves - places where trees are permanently spared. A new plan, approved this month by the Oregon Board of Forestry, seeks to imitate old growth in some stands, but even those stands would be logged after a century or so. The plan would keep all of the county's 154,000 acres in harvest rotation forever.

For the Birminghams, that's the real problem.

"We're interested in saving an entire ecosystem," Jeffrey Birmingham says. "This agency (ODF) works for the people - don't tell me what your mandate was 30, 40 years ago. Public values are changing."

This land isn't your land

Across the West, folks like the Birminghams face similar battles over public land managed by the state, says Janine Blaeloch (HCN, 3/29/99).

Blaeloch, director of the Seattle-based Western Land Exchange Project, a nonprofit group that monitors federal land swaps, says California, Idaho and Montana are among the states that exchange state land for logging.

Although critics decry federal land swaps, Blaeloch says often federal trades offer more environmental protections and more opportunity for public comment than state swaps.

"The feds can't trade lands that should be protected," Blaeloch says. "In the states, that just isn't true. State forestry public involvement laws are always a lot more lax."

That's because it's much harder to get access to state rules, to understand them, and to get the states to actually encourage public participation, she says.

"We may have a difficult time with federal agencies, but they do have a mandate to involve us in the debate over public land," says Blaeloch. "States treat the land as their land, not the public's."

Karen Mockler is a reporter for the Daily Astorian in Astoria, Ore., and a former HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Oregon Department of Forestry, 2600 State St., Salem, OR 97310;
  • Friends of Tillamook and Clatsop Forests, P.O. Box 369, Banks, OR 97106;
  • Western Land Exchange Project, 206/325-3503.
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