6/12/2018 1:02:00 PM Watchdog group seeks answers on tree-killing
Central Oregon Land Watch is seeking some answers regarding the death of a thousand or more ponderosa pine trees along Highway 20 west of Sisters.
Paul Dewey, the executive director of the land-use advocacy group told The Nugget that "we've done FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and public records requests to try to track down who is responsible and who was making decisions."
The problem began developing from 2013 to 2015 when an herbicide named Perspective was used along the highway corridor, within the Oregon Department of Transportation's right of way, to remove brush.
The herbicide harmed ponderosa pines and other trees in the area where it was applied.
As the trees began showing distress and started dying in 2014, the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) conducted a joint analysis to determine the cause. The analysis indicated that the manufacturer of the herbicide Perspective originally stated it may harm susceptible trees, but the label did not say it specifically would harm ponderosa pine trees. However, in 2012, additional language on the manufacturer's label was added specifically stating it would damage ponderosa pine trees. ODOT has discontinued use of Perspective where trees are growing.
ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy said that the agency will comply with the public records request from Central Oregon Land Watch.
"We'll provide the documents they're asking for," he said.
It is, however, unclear that there is specific documentation regarding how and why the decision to use Perspective was made.
"There's no written record," Murphy told The Nugget. "That's part of the problem; we don't have that as far as I can find."
Many of the people involved in the project have retired from either ODOT or the Forest Service, Murphy noted. The agencies were to meet on Monday to get new players fully up to speed on the issue, he reported.
While Central Oregon Land Watch is interested in finding out more about how the debacle along the highway happened, and want to see an investigation, Dewey said that the primary interest is in mitigating the situation and ensuring that something like it doesn't happen again.
"Essentially, we're trying to make the best of a bad situation," he said.
Last month, the Sisters Ranger District sought public comment on plans to cut down and remove dead and dying trees that pose a hazard to public safety along 11.5 miles of Highway 20 beginning at the City of Sisters and travelling northwest and a one-mile section southeast of Sisters.
Central Oregon Land Watch is suggesting that, rather than cutting down and removing trees, they be topped and left partially standing in order to preserve the "corridor" feel of the highway.
"Our primary suggestion is, at least leave the boles of the trees," Dewey said. "The snags are attractive in themselves, as well as providing wildlife habitat."
Dewey said that leaving the boles would also honor a compromise that was struck back in 2006, when ODOT sought to widen the highway for passing lanes west of Sisters. Considerable public pressure was brought to bear to preserve the tree-lined corridor leading into Central Oregon, and ODOT ultimately decided to build only a westbound passing lane, although ODOT officials said then that they would eventually build the eastbound lane as well.
ODOT's Murphy told The Nugget last week that he has heard "not one word" about any plans to widen the highway further.
Sisters District Ranger Ian Reid told The Nugget that the Forest Service has not determined how the dead trees will be handled yet. The agency is wrapping up its post-Milli Fire work and will soon turn its focus to the highway corridor, he said.
Reid said that Central Oregon Land Watch's letter detailing its suggestions has been received along with other public comment, which the agency solicited last month. That commentary will be weighed in deciding how to proceed.
"I did read Paul's letter, and I appreciate their concerns," Reid said.
Asked about the viability of topping the trees, Reid told The Nugget that he has heard a rough estimate of $500 per tree for topping. Depending on how many trees were handled in that manner, the cost could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Reid noted that whatever the agency ultimately determines to do, they'll have to be able to afford to do the project.
In addition to mitigation, Dewey's letter suggests that "the Forest Service should change its policies so that all future proposed applications of pesticides on Forest Service lands at least in scenic corridors and in the Metolius Conservation Area go through a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process and are not categorically exempted from NEPA. If the application of the harmful herbicide that led to the need for the current project had undergone full public review, interested members of the public would likely have noticed the warning on the herbicide label that indicated that harm to ponderosa pine trees is likely to