McDonald-Dunn Balancing Act

Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Since 2006, Robert Verhoogen has been leading hikes through the McDonald and Dunn Forests with the Mary’s Peak Chapter of the Sierra Club. About five years ago, his passion for doing so lead him to become the Outings Coordinator. In this role, Verhoogen often takes advantage of the access to nature that the Oregon State University Research Forests provide. 

While he prefers to frequent these trails in the winter months, and explore the Cascades in the summer, he finds these more local trips to be hugely popular at any time of year, as many attendees don’t want to drive so far to get outdoors. Unfortunately, Verhoogen says that this past summer he “felt severely restricted with the trails we could cover, because so many places were being harvested at the same time.”    

With the majority of this calendar year’s harvest operations wrapped up in the popular McDonald and Dunn Forests, many other recreationists have already returned to their favorite places to hike, run, bike, or horseback ride, after a summer spent apart. Some have found that these places look much different than they did on their last visit. 

Clear-cutting, and to a lesser extent thinning (a reduction in tree density), can cause dramatic changes in the landscape. These changes may be frustrating to forest users already disappointed by the number of closures they faced during peak recreation season. As a result, now is an ideal time to reflect on communication efforts over ongoing operations in OSU Research Forests before and during their occurrences, as well as how these operations are vital in allowing continued recreation on the lands.  

OSU’s Communication 
Each January, OSU Research Forests releases a map showing where the upcoming season’s harvests are to occur. This goes out on their website, facebook page, and e-mail list, which includes upwards of 800 members. The map details what kinds of harvests are happening where, as well as other activities, such as herbicide spraying. However, those viewing this map may be disappointed to find that the dates are only approximate.

Ryan Brown, Recreation and Engagement Program Manager and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator for OSU Research Forests, explains, “One of the problems we face is that our dates are unpredictable. When a harvest starts, it has to do with contractor availability, as well as considerations such as fire season, weather conditions, and the timing of other projects. The actual start date is up in the air, and we often don’t have much heads-up before the harvest starts. Unfortunately, we can’t say, ‘expect the closure to start on this date.’ Instead, we have to say ‘the closure will probably start in the spring or summer, and we’ll let you know more when we have it.’” 

When uncertainties become clearer, more information is released. This includes a fact sheet with another map detailing the harvest type and where the forest will be closed throughout the process, including all trails and roads within that area. These sheets are sent to the same online groups, which Verhoogen appreciates with a caveat, “[they] are very good about sending these notices out. Sometimes they come out at the last minute, but they provide a lot of information to pass on to others.” Verhoogen includes these notices in the Sierra Club newsletter he sends out to members, called The Peak View. In addition, they are posted on the ground at major trailheads and decision points (i.e. trail-road intersections) where the area would be accessed. They can also be found on the College of Forestry website. 

Even closer to the date of activity, closure signs, flagging, and fencing goes up to make it clear where visitors are prohibited from entering. While this seems easy enough, it takes great care to make sure all potential entry points to a harvest zone are marked off, considering the numerous amount of unauthorized trails that exist in the forest system, the necessity to sometimes remove fencing so that operation machinery can get to and from the site, and the unfortunate, and thankfully rare, occurrence of forest users taking down signage. 

For these reasons, personnel are sometimes placed at decision points to direct recreationists to alternative routes. Even further, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office Forest Deputy will occasionally be posted nearby, checking for trespassers and issuing citations. OSU Research Forests and other forest owners fund this position in order to enforce laws in forests throughout Benton County.  

Safety Considerations 
While some may guffaw at closure signs, adherence to closures is not just a matter of legality, but of personal wellbeing.

“Logging is such a dangerous job, and that’s with all the safety precautions they have in place,” explains Brown, “someone coming into the area with no safety precautions is in such peril.” 

According to 2015 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, loggers had the highest number of deaths per 100,000 workers at 132.7, with 67 loggers dying on the job. In a 2017 article, Jeff Wimer, an OSU instructor in charge of the student logging training program, said that this danger is largely due to instances where loggers are working outside of their machinery. Considering that visitors venturing into a closed area would never have the luxury of this protection, a picture becomes clear at how risky such behavior is.

“The physics don’t work in favor of a recreationalist walking through the closure,” agrees Stephen Fitzgerald, Director of OSU Research Forests and Extension Silviculture Specialist.  

Because of the danger to users, all closures within the forests are always 24/7 when signed.  The reality is that “harvesters work really irregular hours, and those are also unpredictable,” Brown describes. People faultily “think that after hours in the evenings, or the early mornings, or on the weekends that [harvesters] can’t be working, but they often are.” For example, fire shutdowns sometimes occur as a precautionary measure, forcing harvesters to stop the use of machinery before the day heats up too much. Often in these cases, “crews will start working at dawn or work through the weekends to get as much done as they can before they shut down in the early afternoon,” Brown continues.  

While a recreationalist might not actively hear machinery in use, it is still never safe to enter a closed area, Brown emphasizes, “the closure may be located far away from the harvest area, or the loggers may have turned off the chainsaw between felling trees. Trees might actually be falling in an area, even if you can’t hear anything.”  

User Feedback
Because of how important it is to keep recreationists safe, OSU encourages forest users to let them know when their communication strategy isn’t working well.

“Some people complain, you know, this is my favorite hiking place and you have a harvest,” says Fitzgerald, “there’s not much we can do about that complaint, but if there’s something that doesn’t make sense…give us the feedback, then we can look at it from their perspective, it helps us to communicate a lot better.” 

One way the Research Forests seeks out constructive feedback is through its Forest Recreation Advisory Council or FRAC, a branch of its Recreation and Engagement Program. The FRAC “meets quarterly to help the OSU Research Forests realize the goal of providing safe, quality recreation opportunities while meeting the goals of the College of Forestry,” says Ken Fitschen, three-year-old Assistant Outings Coordinator with the Sierra Club and FRAC member of one year. Fitschen works to represent the hiker’s perspective, while other members represent diverse stakeholders such as bikers, horseback riders, and dog walkers. Since Fitschen’s involvement, the closure signage has improved, which he and Verhoogen appreciate when leading folks on unfamiliar routes. “The maps that existed [before] were not so easy to figure out,” he says. 

Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

Value of Recreation
FRAC demonstrates the Research Forests’ overarching mission to “support and promote an integrated community made up of residents, schools, organizations, the College of Forestry and OSU by offering a high quality local recreation destination and interactive opportunities to learn about forests,” as stated in a 2016 document.  

Legally, recreation is considered a conditional use of the Research Forests, meaning that OSU had to apply for a permit with the Benton County Planning Commission in order to build new single-track trails and improve parking areas and restrooms at trailheads in 2016. In 2017, public hearings associated with this application occurred, and in September of that year, the permit was granted by the County following the approval of a five-year action plan developed by the Forests.  

“People forget that OSU doesn’t have to keep the forests open to recreationists,” Fitschen says. But the process OSU went through to get the conditional use permit exemplifies that they “recognize the value to the community.” 

Fitschen continues, “People complain about logging, [but] that’s what pays for the management of the forest. The money that goes from those thinnings and clear-cuts pays for the salaries and maintenance of the McDonald, it’s a pay for-itself organization.” Indeed, while some grants applied for were to improve trails, “as far as our daily maintenance, all of our operations are paid for by timber harvests, we don’t get any tax funding,” Brown says.  

Next Steps and Challenges
Next season, forest users should look out for a new interactive map that OSU will be releasing to better display where upcoming harvest activities and associated closures will occur in real time. This should help recreationalists better pre-plan their routes through the forest according to current closures.  

While improving communication is not something that will persuade all users of the forests to stop criticizing the University when their favorite stand of trees are cut, these continued efforts demonstrate that “OSU is being very proactive in recognizing what a value the McDonald and the Dunn are to Corvallis…it’s for the Corvallis community,” Fitschen says, “they want it to be a local community resource.”  

“We are managing for multiple values, and that’s a good thing,” says Brown, “but there are challenges associated with that and we embrace them.”

To learn more about where current operations are occurring, or opportunities to get involved in OSU Research Forests, visit: http://cf.forestry.oregonstate.edu/more-information

By Ari Blatt  

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