In the aftermath of a late December windstorm that caused widespread tree damage throughout the region, Philomath School District officials realized that its research forest had been damaged to the point that it needed to be cordoned off from public use.
“It didn’t sustain much damage on the edges of it but the center of it was just decimated,” Philomath School Board Chair Rick Wells said about Downing Research Forest during a May meeting.
Trees had fallen and several others had been weakened. The school district grew concerned about liability issues. The caution tape went up, forestry students and recreationists were kept out and a group of school officials and foresters sat down to discuss options.
Roughly six out of 10 acres in the research forest had seen considerable damage. The end result involved a tree-removal operation with plans to replant.
“The area that we’re focusing in, I don’t anticipate that we’ll salvage trees in that entire footprint but most likely a good majority of that,” Miller Timber’s Preston Green said Monday as the operation was just getting started. “Most of that is driven from a silvicultural tree health perspective — that’s really what the decision-making process comes down to here when we’re deciding what trees to cut and which ones to leave.”
In addition to Green and Wells, others in the decision-making group included Susan Halliday, Philomath Superintendent of Schools; Simon Babcock, Philomath High forestry teacher; Stephen Coskey and Riley Stephenson, both of Starker Forests; and Jessica Hanson, school district career and technical education coordinator.
“We needed to do something … it finally got to a place that we just needed to invite everybody into the same room and sit and have the conversation together and make a reasoned decision,” Halliday said. “That was worth its weight in gold. If we would’ve done it three months ago, it would have been great in hindsight.”
In the end, the group decided that a removal and replanting operation would be the best way to go.
“It’s really all about tree health and what’s going to be best,” said Green, who serves as Miller Timber’s assistant vice president of CTL systems and director of university outreach. “Long term for the school district, the kids, the general public that recreates out here, and there’s also the cross-country trail that goes through here — we’re trying to keep all those different stakeholders in mind when we’re making these long-lasting land management decisions.”
Halliday said that through the group that provided input, it became clear that the downed and damaged trees had to be removed out of liability concerns that had surfaced.
“We said we will give whoever does the work the authority to be able to make a determination about what comes down, rather than going out and marking every tree and trying to figure that out,” Halliday said. “Once we got connected with Miller to be able to do the work, we told them, ‘it’s your professional opinion about what needs to come out of there.’”
Asked to define the scope of the mess at Downing forest, Miller Timber’s Green said it comes down to perspective.
“If you’re one guy with a chainsaw trying to clean all this up, yeah, it’s a huge mess,” he said. “But with the mechanization and the finesse and the capabilities of these machines, that just allows us to increase the pace and scale of projects like this. For us, this is a small project but nonetheless, it’s one that’s well within our wheelhouse. It allows us to get the project done in a really short time frame, which allows the school to get back to doing what they need to do as well.”
Halliday said it comes down to safety.
“We know that there’s going to be an area where we will replant and have the opportunity to start over,” she added.
As the operation progressed, community members started to absorb the scope of the project based on the number of trees removed. It created a startling sight for many, including those connected with the cross-country program.
PHS cross-country coach Joe Fulton was out of town this week and couldn’t provide his immediate perspective on the project’s impact. Through the years, Fulton has tried to protect the course, which in the late 1990s was named with the school board’s approval in memory of the late Paul Mariman. At the time, Fulton said he was assured by the school board that the course would be protected and cared for just like the nearby ballfields. He received similar assurances in 2020 by late superintendent Buzz Brazeau when the city of Philomath installed a sewer line between the forest and Chapel Drive.
The cross-country course had built a reputation as one of the most enjoyable in Class 4A and included a stretch of trees lining the trail to create an effect that runners referred to as “the tunnel.”
Fulton and a few others received an emailed letter from Halliday on Monday to inform them of the project with an invitation to provide input on the future of the cross-country course. Halliday mentioned available excess dirt that could be used to enhance the course’s design.
“How can we embellish the course? Can we fill in holes? Can we look at any more hills and rises and some things that might be good for the course into the future,” she said, “because we know it’s going to change the structure, look and feel of that course just by the nature of having some open areas through there.
“But that’s kind of the natural progression of how we have to work,” she added.
Halliday said she plans to contact the city about the attempted replacement of the windbreak that had been removed during that sewer line project three years earlier. She mentioned the possibility of planting coniferous species in that stretch, such as Arborvitae or Leyland Cypress.
Details of the operation
With the summer moving by quickly, the school district knew it needed to get the project going, especially with cross-country practice beginning in a few weeks.
“The school was wanting to get it done really before the fall activities started to come back around and the students were back around,” Green said. “There’s going to be some other cleanup work to do — they want to chip the residual slash and take care of some stumps here and there and things like that so they want to kind of spruce it up before those fall activities come back online.”
Halliday said there are plans to eradicate poison oak that is commonly seen on the property.
Miller Timber used its Ponsse cut-to-length harvesting system for the work.
“That consists of one harvester that cuts and processes the trees right there at the stumps and turns them into logs and then the other machine is a forwarder,” Green said. “The forwarder comes through and picks up the logs, decks them by the road and then we load them onto a truck after that so just a two-man crew here for this project.”
Miller Timber had planned to use the project as a training opportunity.
“That was the original intent but due to scheduling and to make a long story short, we weren’t able to make that happen,” Green said. “We do have the guy that’s running the harvester, he’s actually our lead skills and technical trainer. He doesn’t have trainees working with him here but he is our main trainer.”
For a school district that’s tight on money, the financial piece of the operation held great importance.
“This project financially, it will actually be cash flow positive to the school,” Green said. “We’re getting paid to harvest the trees that need to be salvaged and transport the logs to Wren Hill (Lumber) outside of town. They’re going to receive the logs and turn those into lumber.
“We’re going to get paid for the cutting and the hauling and there will be cash flow back to the school as a result of the project,” he added. “It’s not costing the school anything other than some time from representatives to meet with us and do some planning and things like that.”
Three options considered
Before the final course of action had been determined, the group that met to talk it out looked at two other options, Halliday said. One of those was to simply do nothing and allow the forest to take its natural course.
“One of the suggestions was to leave everything as it was — inclusive of the way the root balls sit. In a natural forest, that’s what you’re going to do,” Halliday said. “On a school district-owned forest, you can’t do that because of liability, so that was kind of off the table from the beginning.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the group also talked about just leveling the entire forest and using the space for fields or buildable property. The school district has access to Castle Family Forest in Wren and will end up with landlocked property following the upcoming street project that will extend South 16th Street to the Cedar-South 17th intersection behind the elementary school.
And then the third idea, which was chosen, was to “just take out only things that we needed to take out and leave the rest of it intact,” Halliday said.
“So we looked at Downing, we looked at Castle, we looked at how much Starker is used and we looked at the possibility of the area back behind the elementary school all as considerations to say, ‘what do we need to do?’” Halliday said.
That’s where Miller Timber, Starker Forests, Babcock and Hanson came in to help the district figure out the next move, Halliday said.
When the group met, the idea of doing something with the landlocked property behind the planned street extension was taken off the table “because to grow forest area in wetlands is a whole different animal, which I didn’t realize,” Halliday said.
As far as Castle Family Forest goes, Babcock has taken certain classes out to the Wren property.
“When he takes students out there, he typically looks at whatever classes are in a double-blocked period so they have time to get out there, do something and then come back,” Halliday said. “So it’s not used every day but it is getting used from Simon’s classes.”
Castle Family Forest is a 20-acre piece of property located on the west side of Kings Valley Highway about 100 yards north of Wren Community Hall. In 2020, it was donated by the Castle family to Philomath Community Foundation with the stipulation that the property be used by the Philomath School District for educational purposes.
Halliday said a conversation will need to take place about expanding the use of Castle Family Forest beyond high school students as a K-12 outdoor education opportunity.