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A not so clear-cut clearcut Part 1: Timber operations go off reservation

The 110-acre clearcut just east of Hood River as seen from Burdoin Mountain on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

The 110-acre clearcut just east of Hood River as seen from Burdoin Mountain on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Daryl Lloyd

Over the winter 110 acres of trees in a highly sensitive, very visible Gorge hillside were chopped down. Local environmental groups and members of the public claim they had no idea what was going on until chainsaws and bulldozers were already running. Now they want to know why and how it happened.

In an area rich with deep green trees, the empty hillside above I-84 on the eastern edge of Hood River County is a stark contrast.

The logged area sits above I-84, near the Historic Columbia River Highway trail between Hood River and Mosier. Some of the area was burned in the 2009 Microwave Fire, which straddled Hood River and Wasco County. Last year, parcel owners on tribal trust land and SDS Lumber of Bingen began looking into harvesting trees within the area as part of an operation to salvage burned timber as well as cut live trees.

The operation got the eventual go ahead by the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The logging operation marked the coming together of a unique set of circumstances and to discover how it came to happen one must wade through an alphabet soup of agencies, competing or vague regulations, multiple interpretations of the sequence of events and governing bodies relying on a different body's interpretation in order to make their own decision.

Friends of the Columbia River Gorge and other environmental groups contend the clear cut should never have happened; or at the very least the public should have been notified and given the opportunity to comment.

The 110 acres which were clear-cut are owned by SDS and individual tribal owners. Approximately 80 acres are tribal trust land managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Confederated tribes of Warm Springs for the individual parcel owners while another 30 acres is privately owned by SDS.

When the Columbia River Gorge Commission began receiving phone calls in December asking about a forestry operation on tribal land in the Gorge as tribal land is not under the jurisdiction of the National Scenic Area Act or the Gorge Commission.

Only later, when it became clear that the clearcut involved not just the 80 acres of tribal land, but also 30 acres of private land which the tribes had to get through to access their timber is when the Commission claims it became aware of the bigger issue.

The tribal land is exempt from the National Scenic Area Act provisions; however, any logging within the scenic area still must go through a public notice process under the National Environmental Policy Act, something which Friends of the Gorge say both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Warm Springs failed to do. The BIA admits that the Tribes could have done a better job of noticing the general public.

"The tribes could have done a much better job of public scoping," said Bodie Shaw, assistant regional director for the BIA. "They held public scoping but just for the tribal members ... It could have been done differently."

Shaw said that in "99.9 percent" of cases, most tribal forestry is done within the confines of a reservation, and that this instance was one of the first either he or anyone at the BIA office in Portland could recall that occurred on trust land well off reservation property in the Gorge. In the case of logging operations on-reservation, the tribes typically notice the local tribal community and hold community meetings on the issue.

They did the same this time around, as well as conducting the environmental impact survey required by the National Environmental Policy Act; but did not notify the general public or any of the surrounding communities before commencing forestry operations.

A representative for the Warm Springs said they were managing the land under contract for the BIA after the resolution of a lawsuit with the BIA several years ago for claims that the BIA mismanaged tribal natural resources.

Charles Calica, Secretary-Treasurer for the Warm Springs said the land which was logged was owned by members of the Yakama Nation, but was managed by the Warm Springs since it was in traditional Warm Springs territory. He added the Warm Springs owns a parcel which was adjacent to the logged area, but did not -- and has no plans to -- log it.

Calica said that the Warm Springs Forestry Department advised against the sale for lack of financial benefit, but that that the sale and logging operation went ahead anyway.

Friends of the Columbia River Gorge Conservation Director Michael Lang said the environmental assessment was "the worst EA that I have ever seen for a project of this magnitude in such a sensitive area."

The assessment spans 16 pages, and outlines the desire of the allotment owners to harvest fire-damaged timber as well as 90 percent of the living trees in the 80-acre parcel while leaving some to help in the regeneration process in what is known as the seed tree logging method.

It presented two options for approval: Option A was to do nothing with the parcel and leave it as is. Option B involved logging approximately 78 acres, of trees and replanting with Douglas fir seedlings "where not prohibited by site conditions."

Ultimately the decision was made to go with option B.

"The goal (of option B) is to minimize value loss in the timber affected by the fire and to regenerate the associated green volume to provide sufficient stand value to carry the cost of the salvage harvest," the report states. "This alternative targets a net harvest volume of an estimated 2.3 million board feet of timber, while limiting the negative impacts to associated resources."

Shaw said that BIA is seeking to remind tribes that they would be best served to use a "good neighbor policy" when dealing with off-reservation trust land, and giving the public and affected communities a chance to weigh in.

To say the Warm Springs and groups like Friends of the Gorge have a difficult relationship would be putting it mildly. The two sides have battled back and forth for years over the Tribes' attempt to put an off-reservation casino in the Gorge on tribal land.

Shaw is hopeful that dialogue over the clear-cut may heal over some of the wounds and that improved communication will help to make sure that future off-reservation logging operations will not come as a surprise to the public.

He also added that the BIA is attempting to put together a meeting at the clearcut site between the tribes, BIA and concerned community members to help clear the air.

The hope from the BIA is that the type of issues caused in the 80 acres of tribal land in the Gorge will become a one-time problem, and that tribes will communicate better with general public before beginning off-reservation logging project, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas, in the future.

However, Shaw said he is still attempting to get all sides to agree to the meeting, and would also need to get clearance from SDS to go across private land to hold the meeting.

Calica said that the issue is unlikely to come up again. When asked what the take away for the Warm Springs was from the logging and subsequent controversy he responded: "Grief."

"It's a very unique situation," he said of the decision to log the allotments, and said it that land, and the neighboring land which the Warm Springs owns, are the only forestry allotments the Tribe has in the National Scenic area.

With the tribal land issue appearing to perhaps be a one-time misunderstanding, the private land may become the bigger issue. The 30-acre parcel owned by SDS may be less than half the size of that owned by the Warm Springs, but its clearing has set off a triggered an outcry over miscommunication and confusion between state and federal agencies and angry environmental groups.

And solving it will not be as simple as a verbal reminder to follow a good neighbor policy or the simple replanting of trees.

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