The wound has already started healing.
Some of the 80-odd acres of trees cut down on tribal land in Columbia Gorge Scenic area have already been replanted. The remainder of the 110-acre clearcut is expected to be replanted later this spring.
The trees will grow back. But what sort of future will they grow back into is up in the air.
Groups such as Friends of the Gorge contend that private logging is not an allowed use on any open space lands in the scenic area.
SDS Lumber, which owns 30 acres which were logged, and owns 80 additional acres next to those which were already clearcut, said the National Scenic Area Act puts all non-federal timber lands under the jurisdiction of the state Forest Practices Act, and that the Gorge Commission would have no grounds to prevent them from logging.
The Oregon Department of Forestry, which manages the Oregon Forestry Practices Act, approved the logging operation.
Over the past several months the Columbia Gorge Commission has conducted an internal investigation of the process leading up to the clearcut.
What wound up being exposed was more than just a now barren hillside in the Gorge — it was numerous missed opportunities by multiple agencies to either raise red flags about the clearcut or to potentially stop it.
“No person contacted the Gorge Commission prior to the timber harvest or at the time the Oregon Department of Forestry received the original notification of the timber harvest in GMA open space,” the report states.
The area which was logged presents an interesting case in interagency cooperation. Within the 110 acres, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribal representatives, the Gorge Commission, Hood River County, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service all hold some level of sway.
Even when each agency thinks it has perfectly clear guidance, how that guidance applies to other agencies is not always so simple.
The ODF is tasked with regulating non-federal forestlands in the state, and are given the explicit authority to manage those lands in the Gorge Scenic Area under the Gorge Scenic Act.
The ODF’s own internal guidance for working with other agencies, in this case the Gorge commission, states that “in Oregon, ODF regulates forest practices in the GMA (if forest operations are allowed in the zone). There are some zones, such as ‘Open Space,’ that do not allow forest operations.”
The guidelines also state that for all operations within the scenic area’s General Management Area, the ODF should contact the U.S. Forest Service, the Gorge Commission and the affected county.
Just a few paragraphs later, though, the guidance states that while the ODF regulates forest practices in the management area “enforcement of zoning provisions that prohibit forest practices in the GMA are not the responsibility of ODF and are left to the Commission (or the county).”
“There were several missed opportunities in a number of different conversations … it would be unfair to lay the blame on any one agency,” said Gorge Commission Director Darren Nichols.
Later this month the Gorge Commission staff will be meeting with representatives from ODF and USFS to work on ensuring better communication in the future.
Nichols said he has traded messages with Mosier city councilwoman Kathy Fitzpatrick about having The Gorge Commission, along with the BIA and ODF come to Mosier to discuss how the clearcut came about.
Fitzpatrick is concerned about protecting Mosier’s economy, which has seen a boost from use of the portion of the Historic Columbia River Highway trail which connects Hood River and Mosier. The clearcut is just above that trail.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge shares Fitzpatrick’s concern with protecting the trail and the lands which surround it.
“Even though the trees are cut, what could emerge is better public involvement … and better implementation of mitigation of clearcuts,” said Friends of the Gorge Conservation Director Michael Lang. “We’re looking for solutions; we haven’t filed any lawsuits … our interest is identifying what went wrong and making sure it doesn’t happen again. There is an economic value to protecting this section of the historic highway.”
Nichols also said he is hoping to also discuss communication with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While improved communication may help each agency know what the other is doing, it cannot answer the deep legal question which the Gorge Commission needs answering:
Does the commission have the authority to prevent logging on Open Space lands?
The prohibition of Open Space forestry is based on the Commission’s management plan and its authority to zone land within the scenic area. That authority to zone land was reinforced in a letter from the Oregon Attorney General’s office in 1990 which states that the scenic area act “provides the commission with exclusive authority to designate the use of non-federal lands as ‘forest lands’ within the scenic area.”
However, as the Gorge Commission report on the logging notes, the letter did not establish whether the power to zone lands actually provides the Commission with the authority to regulate or enforce upon uses in the open space areas.
Instead, the letter merely noted that the “savings provision” in the Scenic Area Act, which puts non-federal forestry operations under the purview of the Oregon and Washington Forestry Practices Acts, cannot prevent the Gorge Commission from zoning land, and that zoning and the other provisions of the savings clause are two different issues.
Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols said he has contacted the Oregon Attorney General’s office to have the letter updated, and hopes that the Washington and Oregon attorneys general can work together to provide consistent guidance on the matter.
Nichols said he had not yet been able to connect with the Washington Attorney General’s office, but had spoken with the head of the Natural Resources division at the Oregon Department of Justice about refreshing the 1990 guidance letter.
“We want them to start with 1990 advice letter to flesh it out and answer the questions between the act and the management plan,” Nichols said. “Specifically if the Gorge commission has the authority to prohibit or otherwise regulate timber management in the GMA open space zone.”
Without clear legal guidance, a Gorge Commission already weakened by budget cuts, could find its hands further tied to regulate logging in the National Scenic Area it is tasked to protect.
“As a steward of Gorge resources and the region’s primary leadership body, the Commission should convene appropriate regional partners to resolve resource management issues as they arise,” states the Commission’s report.
As for just how to do that, “[O]nce we have more detailed legal opinion from Attorney General’s office that will give us a more certain starting point,” Nichols said.
In the meantime, saplings will soon be growing in the clearcut area, while their future, and what sort of protection they will enjoy, awaits sorting out.
“Some of the BIA area has already been replanted, and SDS will be planting later this fall,” ODF spokesman Kevin Weeks said. “While it is certainly quite noticeable now, steps are being taken to replant trees and in a few years that will grow back to being a lush forest.”