Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

More than 300 Pine Valley residents in eastern Baker County have signed a petition expressing their concern about the effects of clearcut logging and herbicide use on about 445 acres of private property above the valley.

Mike Higgins, who lives in Pine Valley and belongs to a citizens group opposed to actions by Hancock Forest Management, said he fears logging on land owned by the company’s subsidiaries, which took place in August and September 2018, will result in erosion that, combined with herbicide runoff, will pollute water sources used for drinking and for irrigation.

“We don’t want that in our watershed,” Higgins said Tuesday.

The group is called Concerned Citizens for Pine Valley Water Quality.

Logging on private land in Oregon is overseen by the state Department of Forestry, which enforces the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

Jana Peterson, stewardship forester at the Forestry Department’s Baker City office, said Hancock, which is based in Boston and has an office in La Grande, has complied with the Forest Practices Act during the logging in the Carson Creek area northwest of Halfway.

On Wednesday members of the Pine Valley citizens group asked the Baker County Commissioners to support the group’s goals.

Commissioners declined to take formal action because Hancock has not violated state laws, according to the Department of Forestry.

Commissioners did discuss scheduling a work session for July 24 that would include representatives from the Pine Valley group, Hancock and the Forestry Department.

Because the company clearcut its property, it is required to replant the land with seedling trees within two years of the logging, Peterson said.

Hancock started that process by replanting 85 acres this spring, she said.

Peterson said she will monitor those acres and the rest of the company’s land logged in 2018 to ensure the young trees are thriving, as the Forest Practices Act requires.

(Hancock officials had not returned a call to the La Grande office when this story went to press.)

Reforestation in arid Eastern Oregon almost always involves the use of herbicides to kill vegetation that would compete with the seedling trees and possibly prevent them from surviving, Peterson said.

Although Hancock usually applies herbicides from the air after logging and before replanting, Peterson said the company is trying a different tactic with the property near Pine Valley.

Initially, she said, the company experimented with avoiding the use of herbicides altogether, but the initial results on the replanted acreage is not promising.

Instead, Hancock will employ people with backpack sprayers to apply herbicide around each newly planted seedling.

Higgins said that although spot spraying “is definitely an improvement over aerial spraying,” he remains concerned about herbicides polluting water sources in Pine Valley.

He and his wife, Donna, use a well to obtain drinking water in the home they’ve lived in for more than 35 years, in common with many of their neighbors outside the Halfway city limits.

Higgins said his well is about 50 yards downhill from an irrigation ditch that carries water from a basin below the land Hancock logged last year.

Although landowners are required to notify the Forestry Department before they start logging, and the agency has an online notification system available to the public, the Department isn’t required to send a notice to people living near a proposed logging site.

And so it came as a surprise, Higgins said, when he glanced at the forested ridgeline that looms over the west side of Pine Valley — what locals call the West Wall — and noticed logging was underway.

The clearcut nature of the operation soon became obvious, he said.

In a letter he mailed to Hancock’s corporate headquarters in Boston in late April, Higgins wrote: “My first reaction, upon seeing the results of your timber management decisions, was one of anger. After a few weeks of watching as the logging trucks continued to roll out of the Carson Creek drainage, and the slopes continued to look more and more denuded, my anger was soon joiend by disbelief.”

In his letter Higgins described Hancock’s logging as “short-sighted and profit-focused” and he referred to “irreversible damage that has been done to the web of life as a result of those actions.”

Higgins acknowledges that, as Peterson said, Hancock complied with Oregon’s Forest Practices Act in logging its property.

But he contends that this highlights what he considers serious flaws in that law.

“I’ve been questioning the effectiveness of that law for quite a while,” Higgins said. “It’s quite obvious that the provisions are inadequate to protect the environment and the people who rely on it.”

In his April letter to Hancock, Higgins described the state law as “embarrassingly insufficient” and he requested that the company comply not only with the “letter of the law” but that it consider making changes in its logging practices to reflect the “spirit of the law.”

Specifically, Higgins requested Hancock employ selective logging rather than clearcutting — removing smaller trees and brush to reduce the fire danger.

He concluded his letter by writing that he hopes the company, in managing its land, will “include consideration of the possible effects of those decisions on the resident population, human as well as non-human.”