Cross-country Joe Fulton looks over what remains of the PHS cross-country course. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath High coach Joe Fulton said that when he first saw what remained of Downing forest and his decimated cross-country course, it felt like he was visiting a cemetery.

“I started crying,” Fulton said Thursday afternoon while walking the grounds. “I was just dumbfounded.”

The Philomath School District after consulting with a panel of school and forestry officials hired Miller Timber to not only harvest fallen and damaged trees but also to determine what should come out by considering factors such as the forest’s long-term health and what could end up being a financial liability if such operations would need to be repeated on a regular basis.

Then there was the school district’s safety concerns — afraid that one of those suspect trees could come crashing down and hurt or kill somebody.

Still, the end result was shocking to many folks. Beyond the pleasant visuals that the forest provided for campus visitors and those passing by on Chapel Drive, it had served as a vital learning tool for forestry students.

But for the cross-country coach and others associated with the program, it was downright painful. Philomath High’s most successful sport in the school’s history now faces the challenge of rebuilding.

The winding 5-kilometer route through the woods was dedicated in 1998 to the late Paul Mariman, the longtime PHS coach and teacher who had died 16 months earlier. Mariman built the original course roughly 40 years ago and when Fulton received permission from the Philomath School Board to name it in his mentor’s memory, he said he was told that it would be protected like any other athletic facility in the school district.

“I came back and this is what they did,” Fulton said, referring to the day after returning to Oregon following a visit to friends in Montana — coincidentally, a member of the Mariman family. “I can tell you, the Mariman family is very upset about this. I mean, it’s ironic that just a few months ago, they put Paul in the school Hall of Fame and then they tear down his course. The family would much rather have this course protected than him getting another award. This is more meaningful to them.”

A lot of trees go down in Downing Research Forest

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…

Fulton talks with bitterness about the whole situation and feels like he was not told the whole story about what was going to happen with the forest project. Philomath Superintendent of Schools Susan Halliday contacted him while he was out of the state to inform him of the project getting underway and he said he came away with the impression that it was going to be a minor operation.

Halliday admits that she was surprised herself at the scale of the work that was done.

“No, it’s definitely more than I have anticipated,” Halliday said Thursday evening. “I also understand why it was done and now it’s just how do we put it back together in a reasonable and thoughtful way?”

The superintendent said she’s heard from a lot of upset and angry people about the destruction of the cross-country course.

“I understand why people are upset,” Halliday said. “As a school district, we’re about learning and opportunity and unfortunately, for the safety and everybody involved, we needed to take some bigger steps in order to be able to keep us moving forward into the future. The question is how do we craft what it looks like coming back?”

Course’s history, reputation

Fulton was just coming onto the Philomath cross-country scene in the early 1980s when Pat Downing held the forestry instructor position. In 1981, Downing and his students started growing Christmas trees to try to raise money for the program. In the years that followed, the site became an outdoor classroom for students and in 2012 was dedicated in Downing’s name as a research forest.

“As soon as I started helping Paul, which was about 1981, there was a young forest here, small trees, but you could see the potential and it was really exciting,” Fulton said.

Walking the property, Fulton pointed out only a few small areas where remnants of the course remained — a section of some remaining pine trees and a few other stands of trees that survived the late July project.

Fulton said he’s baffled as to why a project on such a scale would be done so soon before cross-country season begins.

“Would they do that to any of the ball sports?” Fulton said. “I mean, this is ridiculous. This is where our cross-country team does all of its pace work and strategy work. … There’s no way this can be restored in time for the Mariman (Invitational).”

PHS cross-country coach Joe Fulton has tried to protect the course for years in memory of Paul Mariman. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Philomath Middle School’s course, which is shorter in length, was entirely in the woods that now does not exist.

Halliday said she understands Fulton’s response to how the project turned out.

“When you put your life in there and you’re spending ‘x’ number of hours crafting trails and measuring and pruning trees and all kinds of things like that to provide kids the opportunity to run in that kind of an environment or to learn in that kind of environment, I get where people’s anger is at,” she said “Now, the hope is we can work together through the anger and be able to come out on the other side with what’s better and what’s thoughtful and what we need to envision into our future.”

Just a few years ago before a sewer line project along Chapel Drive, a neighboring housing development to the east and devastating windstorms this past winter, the Mariman course had a strong reputation as one of the most enjoyable experiences in the state for long-distance runners.

Competitors started out running through “the tunnel“ before reaching “the snake” on the eastern edge. Then came the biggest feature with “the maze,” a winding route just over 1 kilometer in length through the Downing forest’s trees.

“Half of the course was run in the shade, in the woods, and had twisting trails — it’s what people came here for to run in the Mariman meet,” Fulton said.

The runners got to run through the course twice as part of an official 5-kilometer race.

Mariman designed the course with an approach that took advantage of the property’s contours and where the trees were planted.

“It goes back 40 years — it’s such a living legacy to Paul Mariman,” Fulton said. “It’s very rare to have a good, quality cross-country course on a school property. Usually if you want to find a great course and a meet to go to, they’re usually held in state parks or big parks.”

Nearby projects and impacts

The course first had to be changed when trees were taken down in relation to the nearby housing development. The snake feature became a thing of the past and poison oak and blackberries took over. Fulton said it was too much to keep up with and so a trail was added elsewhere.

Then came the city’s sewer line project and the removal of 27 trees and scrub brush with plans to plant western red cedar to further enclose the tunnel.

“They came in and planted a few trees that died right away and it flooded the tunnel,” Fulton said. “The only person that said that isn’t going to work was (forestry instructor) Simon Babcock. He said it’s going to blow other trees down and he was right.”

An intense windstorm during the last week of December blew trees down all over the city but was especially hard on Downing forest. Caution tape went up as the school district became concerned about safety.

Fulton said that over these past months since the windstorm that he was told that the blown-down trees would be taken out. The coach had been taking his runners to do offseason workouts on other trails in the region. Only in recent weeks did the effort to remove the trees materialize as the school district struck a deal with Miller Timber.

Halliday said that Miller Timber had been given the authority as a logging company with expertise in such matters. Fulton met with the superintendent after getting back to town from his Montana trip and said he was told that the strategy was to take out more trees than anticipated as a cost-saving measure.

In other words, many of those trees, if left standing, were ultimately going to fall victim to wind and would come down anyway, Fulton said he was told. If that happened, the district would again need to hire a logging company to come back in and clean it up. Theoretically, the cycle would continue and eventually have a negative impact on the school district’s budget.

Miller Timber’s Preston Green said on the project’s first day that it was going to be “cash flow positive to the school” through money raised from the sale of the timber minus the logger’s costs for cutting and hauling.

Fulton said he was told he was going to get plenty of dirt and chip to use on a revamped course.

“I’m going to be out here in the open where poison oak and blackberries are going to run rampant and who’s going to spread out all the dirt and chip?” Fulton said. “I’m tired of making all these concessions for our cross-country course and then having to do most of the work myself.”

Halliday said Thursday that the maintenance department has made contact “to be able to have the piles and the root bulbs mulched up and taken care of and we’re looking at the abatement of the poison oak to be able to knock that down. There’s extra dirt that we’re looking at being able to fill ruts and be able to craft whatever kind of course we would need.”

As of late this week, it appeared that no work had started.

“I know we did the purchase order for the grinding work of getting rid of all of the piles and stumps,” Halliday said.

Halliday said she didn’t have a specific date on hand for the work to begin but expected it would be “within the next week.”

“Our ideal would be can we get us to a place where we can establish a cross-country course for the year and even though not be the same as it was, that we can still have an opportunity available to run,” she said.

Looking to the future

Halliday said there are conversations happening about the planting strategy, if they should go with just seedlings or perhaps put in some larger trees “within some of that area that was taken down so that it doesn’t all have to start from ground zero.”

Halliday said the school district is also working with the city to take a look at “break” trees in areas where they had been taken down because of the housing development and sewer line installation.

All but a few break trees remain along the course facing Chapel Drive. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“There were people who said at that point that if we take down those break trees, then everything else is going to all come down,” Halliday said. “And here we are. So we’re trying to work as thoughtfully as we can to make sure we can recraft and rebuild but also knowing the heartbreak that people are feeling.”

Fulton will be talking cross-country with parents and athletes during an Aug. 8 fall sports meeting at the high school. He hopes there will be a good turnout so there can be some brainstorming about how to get the cross-country course restored.

Following on Aug. 16, a meeting involving the school district and city officials will take place. Although it will not be a meeting open to the public, Fulton said he was invited to sit in.

“That will be a meeting between the district and the city to be able to look at conversations about planting the break trees,” Halliday said. “We need to be able to make sure that we have some common ground and common understanding about how we need to move forward.”

Those talks will include details on who pays for what when it comes to upcoming plantings.

“That’s a big part of our conversation on the 16th … where does the responsibility lie?” Halliday said. “It’s really now about how do we thoughtfully piece things back together in a way that provides the maximum opportunity for our students and the maximum opportunity to be able to make sure that we can begin to always regrow that area.”

Cross-country practice opens Aug. 14 and the season opens Aug. 25 with a meet in Monmouth.

“Right now, I’m requesting a bus twice a week to take the cross-country kids someplace else, otherwise, we’re just working out on the track and around the soccer field,” Fulton said. “So we’re going to try to go to the woods as much as we can.”

Peavy Arboretum, Lewisburg Saddle, Bald Hill and Crystal Lake Sports Park were mentioned as possible training sites.

“What people don’t seem to understand is these kids are training to race 5,000 meters. I’d like to see people try that, it’s not easy,” Fulton said. “They can’t get in shape just running two or three miles, they have to do much-longer workouts to build up the endurance to run 5,000 meters. We can’t do it here because we’ll just be running around the soccer fields and around the track.

“So I’ve got to take them elsewhere and that’s money,” he added, “which means it’s going to eat up the budget that I’ve carefully built up over the years by doing little fundraisers and putting on the Mariman meet.”

What about the Mariman Invite?

The Paul Mariman Invitational is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 7. At last count, 33 high schools and 19 middle schools had entered to make it the biggest field ever.

Fulton’s not sure if the meet will happen with no good alternatives for a place to hold it. He’s looking into possibly moving it to a course that begins and ends at Marys River Park and Natural Area but hasn’t heard back from anyone on the possibility.

“I just don’t see it happening because I’m not going to put it on a course that just runs multiple times around fields and then onto the track,” he said. “If we do move the cross-country somewhere, the logistics are going to be a nightmare.”

Fulton mentioned the port-a-potties, electricity, concession stand and covered stands for spectators, which can be great in hot or wet weather, as advantages to having the meet at PHS. The school also has decent parking to accommodate all of the buses and spectators.

“I’m hoping that if we can get some of that work done and get some things in that we may be able to at least have a course for a race,” Halliday said. “So that’s why we’re pushing through to be able to see about making sure we can get everything ground up as quickly as possible, deal with the poison oak, get some dirt spread and at least give us a modicum of some opportunity to hold a meet.”

The cross-country programs have attracted a lot of support from the community. The Philomath Community Foundation, for example, helps pay for the awards that are given out at the home invite. Then there are the parents and other people associated with the program that make sacrifices to keep the program running smooth.

Halliday said she recognizes “those circles of work and the commitment that has gone into making that course and the Mariman meet over all these years to be what it was. It’s the growing pains where we’re at right now.”

Said Fulton, “My parents have been fantastic helping out with cross-country and track. We don’t ask for much. But this (a course) is one thing we did expect to have.”

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.

One reply on “Cross-country coach voices anger, disbelief over decimation of course”

  1. I stand by my statement of recent record. It is a poor site for Douglas Fir. Lousy, not good. It ain’t timberland.

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