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Oregon’s post-fire logging is taking trees that may never be hazards, experts say

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 5/8/2021 Ted Sickinger, oregonlive.com
a person sitting on a rock: Rick Till, a certified arborist from Portland, examining some of the trees cut down in Gates as part of the state's post-wildfire hazard tree removal program. © Ted Sickinger/The Oregonian/OregonLive Rick Till, a certified arborist from Portland, examining some of the trees cut down in Gates as part of the state's post-wildfire hazard tree removal program.

Tree No. 252256 is a 95-foot Douglas Fir that stands south of Oregon 22 east of Mehama, one of dozens of trees in this patch of the Santiam Canyon that has been tagged to be cut as part of the state’s troubled hazard tree removal program.

The massive undertaking is slowly creeping westward, leaving swaths of denuded highway and private properties in its wake.

This particular tree, one of nearly 143,000 that officials estimate needs to be removed statewide, was inspected March 21, and its removal was approved by a certified arborist from Pennsylvania who is now working in Oregon.

Details about the tree come from a mapping database that CDR Maguire, the contractor monitoring the program under a $75 million contract, is maintaining to document the work for reimbursement by the federal government. The data includes pictures of every tree, some basic measurements, and the names of the inspectors and arborists who evaluated it. But there’s not much information on the call to cut No. 252256.

Condition: Poor

Recommendation: Remove

Yet the owner of the land and two independent tree experts who toured the forest patch Monday raised concerns about this tree and others tagged in this tiny portion of the immense project. “Light to moderate” bark char extends only 15 feet up the trunk of the tree, they said, and the crown – the top branches – look healthy.

“There is just very light cosmetic damage to the tree,” Rick Till, a certified arborist and qualified tree risk assessor from Portland, said after shaving off a bit of blackened bark with his hatchet. “If it did fall, it would fall into the woods. It is a very low-risk tree, yet it’s marked for removal, and someone’s going to get paid a few thousand bucks for cutting down this tree, which should take about 10 minutes work.”

Perhaps a hundred feet away sits tree No. 252300, another Douglas Fir tagged the same day by a different certified arborist from Florida. It’s clearly dead, probably from before the fire. The top has fallen out. If has significant decay.

But it’s leaning away from the highway. If it falls, Till said, it too is going into the woods.

“The risk of this doing anything to the traveling public is minimal,” said Till, who until 2016 spent a decade working for a conservation group that is not involved in the current conflict. “If they remove it, no big deal, but on the scale of this project, people are getting paid a lot of money to remove this tree. It’s not hurting anyone by removing it, but it raises serious concerns in my mind about how they’re doing this and inflating the number of trees that need to be removed for private profit.”

That, in a nutshell, is what’s driving the controversy around the state’s enormous tree removal and debris cleanup effort stemming from Labor Day’s wildfires. The Oregon Department of Transportation says it need to act with urgency, removing hazards to the traveling public and members of the communities ravaged in the wildfires. And it’s clear to even the casual observer traveling Oregon 22 between Salem and the Cascade Range that many trees need to go.

But former employees on the project, landowners and local elected officials maintain that program is being mismanaged, with rampant overcutting of trees that pose little risk today, and may never.

The issue came to a head last week in two hearings at the Legislature, where former employees described a project that has gone badly astray, with over-tagging of trees by untrained and unqualified personnel, financial incentives for contractors to cut more, drug use in the field, inadequate safety protocols and alleged instances of fraud over reported work hours and documentation of trees being cut.

By contrast, what officials from the Oregon Department of Transportation described to lawmakers was a meticulously designed program in which trees are being evaluated not once, but three times, including two checks by certified arborists and foresters to ensure they meet the criteria for removal. Those protocols include whether individual trees have a 50% probability of dying in the next three to five years, and whether they pose a risk to motorists or community members if they do fail.

It’s clearly a subjective process, and at no time during Monday’s tour did the arborists stumble across any trees that had been marked for cutting that were not at least partially charred or showing other signs of distress.

But signs of char aren’t necessarily enough, particularly with fire-adapted trees with thick bark like Douglas Fir, said David Shaw, an Oregon State University forestry professor and forest health expert who was on hand during Monday’s tour.

Evaluating a tree’s health after a fire involves examining the extent of the bark char, the fire’s penetration into the tree’s cambium layer – the growth layer that makes new cells – as well the loss of foliage and the level of crown scorch.

“Douglas Fir, with their thick bark, can really protect,” Shaw said. “It can burn for a while. So some of these trees are going to do fine even with the charring the way it looks. The key here would be what happened to the crowns.”

Determining whether a tree is a hazard to the public and needs to be removed involves an additional layer of analysis looking at its proximity to roadways or structures, and which direction it leans and is likely to fall.

Those complexities are the reason the state required CDR Maguire to not only hire certified arborists for the job, but arborists with at least five years post-fire experience in the Pacific Northwest. Former employees have told The Oregonian/OregonLive and Oregon lawmakers that many arborists on the job lack that experience, and that inexperienced monitors were sometimes tagging trees and using arborists’ credentials to log the trees into the system – even when an arborist wasn’t on site.

Based on his online resume, it does not appear that Mason Maye, the Pennsylvania arborist who is listed as having signed off on cutting down tree No. 252256, has the required level of experience. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reached on his mobile phone, Austin Kreutzfeld, the Florida arborist who is listed as approving the falling of tree No. 252300, declined to comment.

CDR Maguire’s chief executive, Carlos Duart, told lawmakers last week that all the firm’s arborists and foresters had the level of experience required by its contract with the state. But based on an emailed statement he sent to the Oregonian/OregonLive this week, neither Maye nor Kreutzfeld strictly meet the bar.

“Maye is a certified arborist and has 3 years’ experience in the Pacific West Coast including the Paradise fires as a tree assessor,” Duart wrote. “Mr. Kreutzfeld is also a certified arborist with 3 years’ experience and is a former combat medic.”

For that matter, Till, the Portland arborist who examined some of CDR’s work, also acknowledged he doesn’t have five years’ experience monitoring conifers post-fire in the region.

It’s a small pool of people.

Regardless of arborists’ experience, critics maintain the state and its contractors should be cutting very conservatively, waiting in some cases for two to three years to determine which trees recover, and which ultimately become real hazards.

It’s a decision with financial implications, as the tree removal efforts could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Up to 75% is reimbursable by the federal government, but only if the state can document it’s done the job right. Meanwhile, Oregon taxpayers will still be on the hook for a quarter of the bill.

It’s an aesthetic and quality of life issue, too, as the tree removal adds to the wildfire devastation and community trauma along some of Oregon’s most beloved and scenic mountain corridors, which won’t be the same for decades, if ever.

And it’s a potential environmental problem, conservationists say, as the vast number of trees being removed could lead to erosion, water quality and habitat issues.

ODOT officials told lawmakers last week that they would follow up on all the allegations made in the hearings, though it’s not clear any of the whistleblowers have been contacted by the agency. An ODOT spokesman, Tony Andersen, said if the claims are substantiated, corrective action would be taken. He also said CDR Maguire has launched its own internal investigation.

“ODOT is also currently drafting the contract procedure for hiring an independent arborist/forester to provide an additional level of oversight to the check, double-check, and triple-check hazard tree evaluation process currently underway” Andersen said in an email. He said the state was in “expedited negotiations” on the contract, and the timeline of the review will result from those negotiations.

The cost of temporarily stopping the work, as some lawmakers have called for, would be onerous, Andersen said, including de-mobilizing contractors, safety liabilities, delays in rebuilding and potentially putting the state’s federal reimbursements at risk.

So the cutting goes on.

Contractors have taken down more than 31,000 trees so far within the footprint of wildfires that burned 1 million acres last year. The cutting is particularly heavy along the Clackamas, Santiam, McKenzie and North Umpqua river corridors, all heavily scorched by the wind-driven conflagrations that raced down the valleys starting Labor Day evening.

Some areas, such as Oregon 224 in Clackamas County and the North Fork of the Santiam River, are still closed to the public, so there is little visibility into the project aside from personal accounts from landowners and contractors who have worked on the project and describe a shocking, and in some cases unnecessarily heavy level of cutting.

Along the highway corridors that have reopened, the impacts are obvious.

Ron Carmickle, the mayor of Gates, has been shaken by what he’s seen and been told, first near Detroit, then closer to home as the logging show has moved westward through the Santiam Canyon. In recent weeks, he said, he started noticing blue dots spray painted on the trunks of hundreds of trees on the highway and on private properties through Gates, including his own burned property.

Then came the orange, bar-coded tags on a subset of the trees marked with the blue dots – essentially a receipt for each tree being removed. Carmickle said he then realized what was coming.

Duart says the trees are evaluated in a three-phase process, first in a production pass then in two further quality assurance checks by arborists and foresters. Duart did not answer whether all the trees with orange tags would ultimately be cut.

Carmickle testified in the hearing last week, and on Monday he invited county officials and members of the media to see some of the activity that has taken place along Oregon 22. Also summoned by Carmickle were Till, the Portland arborist who similarly testified in front of lawmakers last week, and Shaw, the OSU professor who is one of the state’s foremost experts in tree mortality and forest health.

“There’s so many questions in all of this,” Carmickle said, “and how much of it is actually a money grab and how much of it is actually to save our land, to save our forests and to save our trees, save our beauty of Oregon. This is ugly. This is horrid.”

The tour started in Minto Park, on the east side of Gates, where contractors cut down dozens of trees in previous days. Till and Shaw cut into the moist and apparently healthy cambium layer of a 70-year-old fir tree lying on the ground. They noted the thin layer of bark charring. The downed tree next to it showed scorching only four to five feet up the trunk and the remains of green branches above.

“These trees are about 80 years old in this grove, and there’s no evidence of butt rot or root disease,” said Shaw, noting two things that would compromise a tree’s health. “These trees were clearly vigorous and doing very well. … The wildcard for us would be what the crown looked like, and whether it was completely scorched or not.”

That was impossible to tell, though he and Till noted the intact canopy of a nearby tree that was still standing and a large pile of green limbs nearby.

Till, who said his interest in the project was sparked when he was contacted by a former employee on the project who raised significant concerns about the work by CDR Maguire, emphasized that a dead tree is not necessarily a hazard. He repeated what the project’s former lead arborist told lawmakers last week: the protocols used to identify dead and hazardous trees had not been scientifically vetted and were rushed into production.

County officials didn’t stick around long. Marion County Commissioner Danielle Bethell stressed that the county had no oversight role in the process, but that it had tried to be a liaison to the state when landowners raised concerns. She also said the county was grateful to leave the process to ODOT, removing potential safety hazards and liability on its property. She didn’t know where the wood was going, but if it was being sold and defrayed the state’s costs, that was fine by her.

Other landowners aren’t so sanguine. The next leg of the tour was the patch of forest east of Mehama. The elderly landowner dropped by to see what was happening, and though he declined to be interviewed, said he was alarmed by the number of trees being marked. Another neighbor stopped his truck and said several cedars had been cut on his property.

“They hauled my wood away,” he said. “I lost about a thousand dollars’ worth of cedar.”

After Till and Shaw tromped through the grove and examined some of the trees tagged for cutting, Carmickle asked them what they’d seen, and whether too many trees were marked for removal.

Shaw said some of trees tagged for cutting “are really good calls.” But he added that “it looks like some of them will survive, in my estimation.

“There’s a handful of trees in this grove that I would say aren’t necessarily going to be a danger.”

— Ted Sickinger; tsickinger@oregonian.com; 503-221-8505; @tedsickinger

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