The U.S. Forest Service met face to face with the public Wednesday to delve into the finer points of the proposed Polallie Cooper thinning and fuels reduction project on the north slope of Mount Hood.
Despite the controversy which has mounted within concerned citizen groups over the project, the meeting at Hood River Fire/EMS Station took an informal approach.
Hood River Ranger District staffers unrolled maps on tables and dug into details with the 40 or so people who turned out to learn about and discuss the impacts of the Forest Service’s nearly 3,000-acre thinning project.
The Forest Service has planned the “Polallie Cooper Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project” primarily to combat the threat of fire danger on northern Mount Hood, about 10 miles south of Parkdale. USFS released an environmental impact report last month, after which well over a thousand comments have flooded in.
Advocacy groups aired concerns over the impacts of logging on scenic beauty and recreation.
At Wednesday night’s meeting, just shy of a dozen experts in the field represented the Ranger District, including District Manager Janeen Tervo and specialists in archaeology, hydrology, wildlife, fire and other forestry disciplines.
From the public were members of Bark, a Portland-based environmental advocacy group, and a duo of Hood River mountain biking groups, 8 Mile Trail Group and 44 Trails.
The meeting was a chance for people to “get familiar” with the project, said Mike Dryden, USFS archeologist. He predicted more comments on the project would surface following the meeting — that assertion proved correct.
Members of Bark set up a box on a center table, collecting written comments from people opposed to the thinning project and timber sale. The box was already stuffed to the brim at the outset of the meeting, full of comment cards. A label read, “3,584 Comments Opposing the Polallie Cooper Timber Sale.”
Bark representatives expressed frustration at the session.
“They’re (USFS) trading the known impacts of logging with the possible impacts of fire,” said Brenna Bell, Bark staff attorney, when asked about her talks with the rangers.
Her other concerns focused on the drinking water aquifers near the logging project, and the spotted owl habitats nearby.
Russ Plaeger, Bark restoration coordinator, said in a follow-up email the meeting with USFS staff hadn’t alleviated many of the group’s worries.
“A key issue in my mind is, what will happen to the trails in the logging area?” Plaeger said. “Dog River and others are among the most heavily used trails in the Hood River Ranger District.”
Members of bike groups echoed Bark’s concern regarding logging near popular trails, especially Dog River Trail. The primary damage, they said, would be harming the shade canopy and aesthetics of the trail.
A handful of curious citizens not involved in a group took part in the Polallie Cooper meeting.
“I came here to learn,” said Gerald Gard of Hood River, a retired Forest Service employee who heard about the project and was struck by its scale, which he called “not a little 100-acre thing.”
Forest Service officials explained the project would entail three kinds of thinning over 2,380 acres — stand, plantation and sapling —road building, and controlled burns. The plan, which was vetted with Hood River Collaborative Stewards and interagency teams, was designed mainly to make the ecosystem more resilient to wildfires.
It also aims to protect two drinking water supplies within Hood River County from the devastation of fire.
Last summer, amid drought conditions, the Mount Hood National Forest avoided any major blazes, but rangers say it was a close call.
“We really dodged the bullet,” said Kim Valentine, East Zone fire management officer at Barlow Ranger District. She said when hot, dry and windy conditions combine, the threat of forest fire peaks.
The Forest Service hopes to make a decision on Polallie Cooper this summer. Public comment on the project’s environmental impact statement is due by Feb. 25.