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What is this forest's value?

A 400-acre city-owned forest is being cut to give you a one-year water rate discount


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Jay Worley has been working as a forester in Oregon for more than 40 years. He graduated for Oregon State University with a degree in forestry.  The 33-acre tract of forest in the Gourlay Creek watershed, recently approved to be clear-cut, is home to a diverse community of Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock, red alder and Oregon maple.

Underneath the trees lives an environment of ferns, nettles and other types of vegitation. The lay forester would never know the tract had been clear-cut in the 1920s, then again in the ’50s.

Ten years ago, the land was also selectively thinned for timber.

The city of Scappoose plans on using the estimated $440,000 generated from the timber sale to postpone water rate increases for one more year, said Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken. Eventually, the city will have to gradually step-in rate increases, Hanken added.

Water rates could eventually increase by $15 per meter per month, but no fixed rate has been established at this point, said Scappoose City Councilor Mark Reed.

But not all area residents believe the greatest value in the forest is the one-year reduction in inevitable water rate hikes.

Value beyond the pocketbook

“There are communities in our area like Forest Grove and Portland who have chosen to not clearcut in watersheds where they get drinking water because they do see erosion that will get into the water supply, so they made the decision to stop,” said Warren resident Lona Pierce, who has worked with the Scappoose Bay Watershed as well as the Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District.

Pierce said that she sees more value in a forest than just the trees and thinks communities that get water from a watershed should consider those values. “The forest will never come back, it will be a tree farm afterward,” she said. “When you go into mature forest as opposed to a forest farm, there is much more biodiversity.”

Should the city delay a harvest for much longer, however, it could face the prospect of never realizing the market value of the tract.

The original harvest would have probably been all old growth, said Jay Worley, Scappoose forester who works on contract. “The few old-growth trees left from the initial harvest re-seeded,” he said, explaining that the current forest was not the result of a re-planting effort.

Now, the old growth trees in the area are all gone and laws prevent timber companies from cutting existing old growth. Since these laws were enacted, timber mills have been built to manage smaller trees—no more than about 28 inches in diameter. This means merchantable timber needs to be harvested before it gets too big.

Not only are some of the trees in the 33-acre Gourlay Creek Tract beginning to exceed size limits, Worley has also identified conks — mushroom-like growths that protrude from trees and spread through the forest — that are degrading the wood.

“It's not a diseased forest on the verge of death,” Worley said. “But a harvester might see a tree infested with conks and ask me if he has to take it.”

Worley said he'll probably make sure all of the trees with conks are removed during the harvest in order to prevent infection of future forests.

“Once the area is clean, we plant on a 10-foot by 10-foot basis. It works out to be 400 trees per acre,” Worley said. “The law requires that 200 per-acre live, but we're not after the minimum requirements of the law, we're after best forest practices.”

When an area is re-planted, it is done solely with Douglas fir, but seeds scatted around by removed trees and the required two leave-trees (trees left behind during a clear cut) per acre, often thrive in the disturbed soil and open sunlight, resulting in a more diverse forest, Worley said.

Area ecology

Chas McCoy, coordinator at the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council said that the well-forested area along the Gourlay Creek tributary is a cool water refuge for aquatic life.

“One of the concerns for the area is the potential to recruit large conifers, or the likeness that conifers will propagate, age and fall into the creek naturally,” he said. “It is important to have conifers for plant diversity to support a larger diversity of wildlife, and conifers that age and fall into the creek are important for creating in-stream habitat, particularly for salmonids.”

McCoy added that the lack of large wood in the creek is the main limitation for the Gourlay Creek system to provide salmon habitat. Many other creatures roam the Gourlay Creek area, such as black tail deer, elk, songbirds and migratory birds, but when it comes to such clear-cuts, the watershed council is mostly concerned with protecting salmonids, since coho spawn in South Scappoose Creek and its tributaries, McCoy said.

“Since the city's proposed harvest is not adjacent to the main stem of Gourlay Creek, these [issues] are not of immediate concern,” McCoy said.

The Scappoose Bay Watershed Council did identify one area of concern in a drianage adjacent to the harvest area that appears to flow into Gourlay Creek, but it enters the creek below the city's water supply, so it does not appear to be an immediate problem to the resevoir, McCoy said, though there are still risks.

"Our concerns for water quality lie in the possiblity that timber harvest along this drainage could contribute sediment and temperature pollution to Gourlay Creek, which is at the present, nice and cool,” he said.

Small drainages that drain into salmon-bearing creeks do not have the same Oregon Forest Practice regulations as those of salmon-bearing creeks, McCoy added.

The drainage issue is also an area of concern for Worley, though he said it has been identified and should not be an issue. “We're going above and beyond what the law requires here,” he said.

Although there is plenty of lumber within the adjacent drainage that could be harvested within the bounds of the law, Worley has marked the area off with ribbons in order to preserve the small habitat that feeds the creek.

The city of Scappoose currently owns a total of 400 acres of timber lands. Within the Gourlay Creek site, Worley identified about 90 acres of merchantable timber (trees between 45 and 100 years old). An estimated 2.8 million board feet of timber could be harvested from the Gourlay Creek site.

Scappoose is currently inviting bids for all standing and downed timber in the designated Gourlay Creek tract, which will be harvested and replanted by September of this year, said Worley.