SALEM, Ore. — For some, it was the obvious step to safeguard a community from wildfire.
To others, it was an unnecessary encroachment that marred a pathway through virgin forest.
The result, all agree, is ugly. A trail that once traveled through never-before-logged forest is now home to stumps from an effort designed to stop flames from spreading.
The question is whether cutting trees and snags along two miles of the Emerald Forest Trail system, to protect the Breitenbush area from wildfire, was necessary.
Forest Service and Breitenbush Hot Springs officials say yes, while other members of the community disagree.
“It was one of the best intact ancient forest hiking trails in Oregon,” said Michael Donnelly, who helped build the trail in the 1980s. “This was a great loss.”
The Breitenbush Community, which includes the hot springs resort and 72 privately owned cabins, has been threatened by multiple fires this summer.
Smoke got so bad the hot springs closed temporarily and laid off around 100 employees. The area remains under a level 2 evacuation level, meaning residents need to “be set” to go any moment.
The biggest fire in the area is Whitewater, at more than 10,000 acres. But the one that’s brought the greatest threat to Breitenbush has been the Little Devil Fire.
Ignited by a lightning strike in early August, the fire near Devil’s Peak has spread within 1 3/4 miles of the hot springs and cabins.
To protect the area, fire teams looked for the best place to build a fire break, or buffer, between the fires and Breitenbush.
Grady McMahan, district ranger for the Forest Service in Detroit, said the team looked at multiple options along Devil’s Ridge, but found the terrain too steep and dangerous.
Eventually, they settled on a line that included two miles of the Emerald Forest Trail, part of the Spotted Owl Trail system, a popular hiking trail that traverses old-growth forest.
“The fire was coming closer every day, and with the right wind event, the fire could have been right there in a day or two,” McMahan said. “We didn’t feel like that was a risk worth taking.”
McMahan got approval for the plan from officials at Breitenbush Hot Springs.
Fire teams went through two miles of the trail and cut old-growth snags, smaller trees and old-growth yew trees. They created a 50- to 70-foot gap designed to halt or slow a fire if it spread toward Breitenbush.
Fire officials are considering back-burning along the trail, likely using a “drip torch” to burn off flammable vegetation and fuels. It’s unclear whether that will be necessary given rainy incoming weather, fire officials said.
It’s not fun to have to do these things, but we’re living with the distinct possibility that the fire could be on us in no time,” said Peter Moore, business director at Breitenbush Hot Springs. “They were playing the odds the best they could . and we supported it.”
But a number of residents with cabins at Breitenbush are not happy with the decision. They said the move was unnecessary and damaged an area of rich biological diversity in a premature effort to stop a fire that likely won’t arrive.
The Little Devil Fire, now 1,885 acres, has mostly moved southeast, away from Breitenbush, but has crept slightly closer in recent days.
Along with the stumps, the critics point to a loss of spotted owl nesting habitat in the old-growth snags. And, they said, even if the fire had swept toward Breitenbush, the fire break might not have stopped the blaze.
“My big concern is that there is no evidence that such a fire break in old-growth ever works as intended,” Donnelly said. “If a fire can jump the Columbia River, that seriously questions the efficacy of carving fire breaks through ancient forests sans any ecological consulting.”
McMahan said fire breaks won’t stop every fire, but they often do work. He cited a fire break north of Pamelia Lake that’s stopped the Whitewater Fire from entering the popular recreation area in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness.
“You have to have the right weather, and put it in the right place, but they do work,” McMahan said.
Woody Jackson, another cabin owner at Breitenbush, said a better fire break would have been an old access road behind the cabins. It would have put his cabin at greater risk, but he would have accepted that risk rather than impacting the old-growth ecosystem around the Emerald Forest Trail system.
“When I bought a summer home it was with the expectation that it may eventually burn,” Jackson said. “Protection of property is a low consideration, while protecting viable habitats have more importance to me.
“The tragedy is that now that a fire line has been cut within a spotted owl habitat, it will always be an open canopy putting the owls at risk, and the next time there’s a threat from fire they’ll want to use the Emerald Forest Trail again.”
The Emerald Forest Loop holds a special place in the history of the Breitenbush area.
The forest around Breitenbush was scheduled to be logged during the height of Oregon’s Forest Wars in 1986 and ’89.
The timber sale spurred mass protests that gained national attention and was eventually stopped by a lawsuit filed by members of the Breitenbush community, including Donnelly.
“Volunteers built the trail network and have maintained it for 33 years,” Donnelly said. “We estimate around 20,000 hikers per year.”
McMahan said he went along the trail with fire teams and sought ways to limit damage to the yew trees and the forest overall. But that wasn’t always possible, he said.
“It’s true that before, it was a forest that didn’t show any presence of man except the trail, and now there are stumps,” McMahan said. “That’s disappointing to everyone, including me.
“But, I felt like we had to do it.”
Donnelly said he believes water pumps around the cabins and clearing brush were enough.
“I don’t question at all whether it was done in good faith,” he said. “However, we do want an investigation into what alternatives were considered.”
Both McMahan and Donnelly said they’ll look at ways to bring some restoration to the trail once the fires are out.
Moore said time would heal the scars.
“Yes, it’s ugly now,” he said. “But give it three years. This is Oregon. It will grow back.”
Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com