Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Columbia River Gorge Is Dead; Long Live the Columbia River Gorge—Unless Greg Walden Has His Way

Part 2: Simply an Excuse and a Mandate to Clear-Cut

(This follows on last week’s Public Lands Blog post of the same title that was Part 1: It’s a Beautiful, Natural, and Necessary Thing That Nature Changes.)

In 1986, Congress enacted the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act to, among other things, “establish a national scenic area to protect and provide for the enhancement of the scenic, cultural, recreational, and natural resources of the Columbia River Gorge.” In 2017, Representative Greg Walden (R-2nd-OR) proposes to throw it out the window.

Rep. Greg Walden (right) represents Oregon' 2nd congressional district that includes a portion of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.. Source: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Rep. Greg Walden (right) represents Oregon' 2nd congressional district that includes a portion of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.. Source: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Even before the Columbia River Gorge fire was doused by autumn rains, Walden had introduced his Scenic Columbia Gorge Restoration Act of 2017 (H.R.3715, 115th Congress; pronounced “Columbia Gorge Clear-Cut Act of 2017”). The Walden bill is a truly depraved, cynical and opportunistic legislative response. Had Walden been in Congress in 1902 and had his bill been enacted into law, all of the Columbia River Gorge would have been promptly clear-cut and replaced with a monoculture plantation of industrialized Douglas-fir. Even if those plantations lasted 115 years (they would likely be clear-cut at least twice in that period of time), they wouldn’t contribute to the scenic grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. Aesthetically, it might look like the gorge was carpeted in AstroTurf®. Walden doesn’t seem to appreciate the ecological importance of complex early seral forest, the stage of forest development after the disturbance of a late successional forest, more commonly known as a mature and/or old-growth forest.

Walden’s bill includes not only the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area but every other national scenic area within the National Forest System (Table 1).

Table1.jpg

Walden’s bill would authorize and direct the Forest Service to promptly clear-cut and plant conifers in any national scenic area affected by a “catastrophic event,” which his bill defines as

. . . any natural disaster (such as hurricane, tornado, windstorm, snow or ice storm, rain storm, high water, wind-driven water, tidal wave, earthquake, volcanic eruption, landslide, mudslide, drought, or insect or disease outbreak) or any fire, flood, or explosion, regardless of cause.

In other words, nature happening is a catastrophic event. The “such as” wording leaves open the possibility that too many red tree vole (an imperiled denizen of older forests) sneezes—either concurrent and/or consecutive—could be interpreted by the Forest Service as a “catastrophic event.”

In response to each “catastrophic event,” the Walden bill requires the Forest Service to do “response activities,” meaning

. . . any salvage operation or reforestation activity proposed to be conducted within a National Scenic Area adversely impacted by a catastrophic event to address conditions caused or exacerbated by the catastrophic event.

“Salvage operation” is legislative code language for logging all the big trees and selling them. The bill then sets a “reforestation objective” for the “response activity”:

In the case of response activities conducted on National Scenic Area lands adversely impacted by a catastrophic event, the Secretary shall achieve reforestation of at least 75 percent of the impacted lands before the end of the two-year period following the conclusion of the catastrophic event.

“Reforestation” is legislative code language for artificial planting, which necessitates clear-cutting the area beforehand. Such “response activities” must begin within thirty days of “conclusion” of the catastrophic event, which

includes containment of the catastrophic event if occurring before the actual end of the catastrophic event.

Save perhaps for a mudslide or a landslide, the only kind of “catastrophic event” the Forest Service even tries to “contain” is a fire. Earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornados, and all other kinds of storms are not conducive to “containment.” (Neither are fires, but the Forest Service pretends they are so as to keep the money flowing.) It’s all about clearcutting.

If the “response activity” does not exceed 10,000 acres and is visible from viewing areas (including the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, so effectively anywhere), there would be a “categorical exclusion” from any public input or planning and evaluation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and thus no judicial review. The Forest Service could simply create a few distinct 10,000-acre “response activities” and clear-cut the Gorge with impunity.

The Forest Service would also get to decide for itself if its actions might adversely affect an Endangered Species Act (ESA) listed species or its critical habitat. The standard ESA practice is that the fox doesn’t get to determine if henhouse management is good for the hens. If the Forest Service did deign to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service, it could ignore any findings by the fish and wildlife agencies that imperiled species are being harmed because there would be no judicial review of any “response activity.”

The boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area abuts the original 39,000-acre Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness (originally named the Columbia Wilderness when established in 1984). In 2009, Congress expanded the Hatfield Wilderness by 25,946 acres, all in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Walden voted in favor of that expansion that put 56 percent of the Forest Service land on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area into the National Wilderness Preservation System. Walden’s 2017 bill would require salvage logging in designated wilderness if it is within a national scenic area. (Another 8,344 acres of qualifying roadless lands, mostly in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, could and should be added to the Hatfield Wilderness, but I digress.)

Though I dispute and lament the Chicago Tribune headline “Fire Devastates Oregon’s Columbia Gorge—And Nature Lovers,” I nonetheless am glad this was the last words in the story:

Lt. Damon Simmons, a spokesman with the Oregon Fire Marshal, on Wednesday drove the historic Columbia River Highway, a winding, two-lane road that parallels the river on the Oregon side and offers majestic viewpoints from the gorge’s steep cliffs. He came back with a hopeful message.

“The gorge still looks like the gorge,” he said. “It’s not a wasteland. It’s not a blackened, destroyed no man’s land.”

In the name of keeping the Columbia River Gorge scenic, natural, wild and wonderful for this and future generations, Representative Walden should stand down.

Last week, in Part 1, I said: “Yes, the fire covered a lot of acres and some of those acres burned hot (and that’s ecologically okay), with most, if not all, large trees being burned…. The fire, like all forest fires, burned in a mosaic pattern and left some patches unburned and lightly burned.” The data is now in with the Soil Burn Intensity Map issued yesterday by the Forest Service. Soil burn intensity is a rough approximate for stand burn intensity. Of the total 48,759 acres of the “fire,” that “burned,” 15% was high intensity, 30% moderate intensity, 28% low intensity, and 27% very low intensity to unburned.

Last week, in Part 1, I said: “Yes, the fire covered a lot of acres and some of those acres burned hot (and that’s ecologically okay), with most, if not all, large trees being burned…. The fire, like all forest fires, burned in a mosaic pattern and left some patches unburned and lightly burned.” The data is now in with the Soil Burn Intensity Map issued yesterday by the Forest Service. Soil burn intensity is a rough approximate for stand burn intensity. Of the total 48,759 acres of the “fire,” that “burned,” 15% was high intensity, 30% moderate intensity, 28% low intensity, and 27% very low intensity to unburned.