The Goose Project
By Samantha Shimogawa
Within the peaceful Willamette National Forest near Eugene, Ore., there brews a heated debate. Since 2009, the US Forest Service has been planning a 2,134-acre logging operation called “Goose Project,” centered in and around the unincorporated community of McKenzie Bridge. The official notice of the project’s plans was announced in April of 2009 and the Draft Environmental Assessment was open for a 30-day public review in July, 2010. Yet, many living in the area have complained that they knew nothing of the project until February of this year, too late to make a significant contribution to the planning process, as the tree thinning is already in motion. Despite several attempts to placate residents, the Forest Service has found itself in the midst of angry disputes regarding the project’s motives, assessments, and consequences. Although it seems that the Forest Service has given full explanations for each of their proposed actions, many locals are unconvinced and still very concerned about the possible repercussions.
One result that may occur is a disturbance of the McKenzie River Trail, one of the most popular mountain biking trails in the Northwest. The beautiful trail is particularly noted for its scenery — the lush old growth forest, the lava fields, and lakes so clean that you can see the bottom more than 100 feet down. Added to that is the nearly seamless flow of winding singletrack.
Trails TV states that the McKenzie River Trail is “one constant blur of mossy, old growth forest. When all is said and done, you’ll have descended about 1,800 feet, been witness to scores of water pools, and mountain biking Hallmark moments.”
Now, however, some of the surrounding forest’s beauty may be getting cut down as a result of the Goose Project. According to the Willamette National Forest website, its purpose is to “reduce fire risk adjacent to the community of McKenzie Bridge, provide timber and family-wage jobs for Oregonians, and improve wildlife forage for deer, elk, and other species.” The Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment (accessible to the public at www.fs.usda.gov/willamette) states that the Goose Project area has a number of problems.
First, an absence of density management has led the forest to be “overstocked,” which increases tree stress, decreases individual tree growth, allows more insect and disease outbreaks, and augments the potential for high severity wildfires. The document explains that the area has been shaped by wildfires and timber harvest for the past 100 years. To counteract this, the Forest Service plans to commercially thin crowded plots of woodland, which will allow those remaining to grow larger and more quickly while also reducing density.
Second, a reduction of low severity fires over the past century along with the in-growth of openings that had been created from timber harvesting and fires has resulted in an insufficient amount of early seral habitat — a combination of shrub and forb species. “Currently three percent of [the project area] is designated as early seral habitat. With current densities of trees that number is expected to decrease to less than one percent in three years,” says Terry Baker, McKenzie River District Ranger. In response, the Forest Service plans to create one to three-acre gaps, which will provide higher quality early seral habitat and foraging spots.
The Environmental Assessment asserts the need to enhance, create, or maintain this ecosystem to support the 156 wildlife species within Oregon and Washington that depend on it. Furthermore, the document explains that the project grounds contain four elk emphasis areas, three of which do not currently meet the Land and Resource Management Plan Standards and Guidelines for elk forage values.
Lastly, the fire suppression has led to a build up of hazardous fuels throughout the forest ecosystems, such as small trees, brush, and dense over-story canopies.
“Allowing this vegetation to increase in density in the Wildland Urban Interface (where public land is adjacent to private property) increases the danger of high severity, stand replacement fires that can be a threat to life and homes,” Baker explains. Thinning will help with this, as well as burning, to reduce fuel loads. He also states that while the thinning will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, it will not result in significant drying.
However airtight these explanations seem, many Oregon locals are doubtful. Jerry Gilmour, a resident in the Goose Project area and quasi-ringleader of the opposition, is particularly disturbed by the proposed plans. While the Forest Service has claimed that one of their more pressing motives is to reduce the risk of fire, Gilmour doesn’t buy it.
“As you cut out trees, those trees then open up the canopy and let the sun in. That may be a good thing because it inspires growth of the remaining trees, but it also causes other types of vegetation to grow and other types of vegetation to dry out,” he warns. “Right now, if you walk up into these woods you’ll find that it’s very moist. It’s a rain forest, there’s moss, lots of it, hanging from everywhere. Once you open the canopy, it causes other species to start taking over. Then you go from a forest that’s pretty much fire resistant because of the moisture and lack of brush to a forest that’s very dry and easy to burn.”
In addition, Carrie Monohan, Ph.D, Science Director of the Sierra Fund, explains that a healthy forest must include mortality processes and abundant dead trees and snags. However, she says that logging will reduce the “natural mortality processes and reduce the recruitment of snags and dead wood over a very long period of time.” She remarks that although the Environmental Assessment claims that sufficient dead wood and snags would remain, it fails to provide support for the assertion.
Gilmour also claims that ground and ladder fuels are minimal to nonexistent, and, concerning wildlife, there is already naturally a lot of open area and vegetation for deer and elk. Though he does not claim to be an expert, he affirms that anyone who lives in the area can see that the animals are healthy in their environment as it is.
Monohan agrees and adds that the Forest Service is misplacing their priorities by creating more habitat for elk, an unthreatened species, while significantly decreasing the habitat for spotted owls, an endangered species.
If the Forest Service is adamant about creating more early seral habitat, she provides an alternative: heavily thinning the existing young stands. “Complex early seral habitat can be provided by managing existing planted stands less than 35 years old (which are abundant), rather than by converting mature forests (which are in short supply and needed for recruitment as future old growth).”
Moreover, she brings up the problem of the timber economy and sees little justification for sacrificing public forests to produce wood products. Monohan also discusses a fear of adding to global warming, which is caused by the cumulative build up of greenhouse gases, especially carbon, in the atmosphere.
Gilmour explains the danger of pollution with his focus on potential spill or erosion issues where material that comes down from the hill will end up in the McKenzie River. He disagrees with the Forest Service and their assessment that the flat area between the logging area and the river would absorb whatever comes off the mountain.
Additionally, in the process of logging and creating gaps, he says that much of the majestic and ancient old growth will be cut out. Although the Willamette National Forest website clearly states that the “harvest plans purposely exclude cutting larger, older trees that are present within the larger planning area,” Gilmour clarifies that old growth under Forest Service standards is defined as a tree that is 200 years old, while Baker points out that stands do not “transition from mature to old growth until they are 175-200 years old.”
“They’re going to be cutting 120-150-year-old trees, talking about them as if they’re young to middle-aged,” he comments. He goes on to explain that these trees are five feet in diameter, and some can actually be as large as seven feet. “They’re not interested in the small 7-12-inch trees because there’s no money in them,” he remarks. “That’s really what this whole thing is about.”
When asked what the forest would look like in ten years if no action was taken, Baker answered that it would be much the same as it does now. So why do it? What’s the rush? The Forest Service’s answer is that it will make the forest better and healthier.
As for the McKenzie River Trail, especially popular for mountain bikers, Gilmour admits that it shouldn’t be greatly affected by the project, though he does warn that it could in the future. He explains that Baker has only identified to the public a little over half of where the Forest Service intends to log. While it is only speculation, Gilmour cautions that the biking trail would be among the unidentified areas for logging or some other forest management procedure.
Baker assures cyclists that the McKenzie River Trail will be mostly untouched, and the closest harvest unit is at least a quarter-mile away.
“There are, however, hazardous fuel treatments adjacent to the trail,” he says. “The Environmental Assessment identifies hand cutting/thinning of trees of no greater than 10 inches diameter at breast height, and cutting/piling brush, with burning, chipping, mastication and/or firewood as a method to dispose of the material.” He does not anticipate any closures of the trail, though there is a possibility of interruptions developing for about 5-10 minute intervals.
Despite all of Baker’s reassurances and explanations, Gilmour and many other residents remain discontent and concerned.
Flowing trails amidst healthy forests provide a fantastic playground for mountain bikers.
Yet, with such a complex issue surrounded by two extremely opinionated and polar opposite positions, it’s hard to know who’s right or wrong, who’s saying things just to get their way, and who’s really telling the truth.
“And that’s exactly why we want to stop the clock and go back to the beginning,” Gilmour remarks. “If what they’re saying is true, let’s take it apart, look at it, and make sure that everyone’s convinced that it is true. And if it isn’t, then let’s put the brakes on it.”
The Forest Service seems unwilling. It is true that they have been making an effort to listen to residents and answer questions, and Baker comments that this project has made it apparent that they all “need to make a stronger effort to communicate [their] thoughts about how the land is managed prior to a decision being made.” He says he looks forward to the possibilities these future conversations will create. However, despite the hope for greater interchange of thoughts, the project continues to progress, with no signs of stopping.
In an effort to put the logging on pause pending an environmental impact statement, Gilmour and fellow Oregonians have put together a petition, currently signed by more than 5,000 people. Gilmour reveals that a lawsuit against the Forest Service has been put into motion. In the meantime, he says there will be lots of activities going on from here on out and updates will be posted online. For now, citizens are encouraged to stay tuned and contact their elected representatives.
Others who will be following developments on this forest are the Northwest Trail Alliance (NWTA) and International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).
For more information about the Goose Project, visit www.savemckenziebridge.com. To see the Forest Service’s documents on the project (including the Environmental Assessment), go to fs.usda.gov/willamette.