Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Fields Fir sale: Naselle ponders logging its watershed

NASELLE — At least twice, plastic flagging tipped locals off to the Fields Fir timber sale — a 174-acre harvest the DNR is proposing in the Lane and O’Conner Creek watersheds, which supply Naselle’s drinking water.

It was a hunter both times. One saw ribbons left over from the timber cruise, and told his friend and longtime Naselle resident Rex Ziak about it. The other was Gavin Maxwell, also a longtime Naselle resident, who saw sale tags in late 2022.

Not that there was anything to hide. For the DNR, this was business as usual, and a slow-moving business at that. “We feel that we have done our due diligence on this sale,” said Steve Ogden, Assistant Region Manager for the DNR’s Pacific Cascade Region.

A DNR geologist assessed the watersheds’ susceptibility to landslides, as much of the terrain is very steep, while a DNR hydrologist assessed the potential for increased flow and sediment transport in each creek. Both concluded that the harvest would pose a manageable risk to public health and safety, provided the DNR follows certain mitigation procedures.

“We’re governed by a very strict set of regulations,” said DNR Communications Manager Ryan Rodruck. “And in this particular case, we’ve gone above and beyond those, because it is a watershed.”

Maxwell has gradually been convinced of this. After returning from his hunt back in 2022, he alerted his colleague, Alex Bighill, to what he’d seen. The pair run the day-to-day operations of the Naselle Water Company’s treatment and distribution facilities. And at the time, they had questions for the state.

“We had a three- or four-hour meeting with the entire DNR team,” Bighill recalled. They went back-and-forth over the width of riparian buffers. They discussed the location of access roads that would have to be either improved or constructed. They supplied years of flow and turbidity records for the state’s hydrologist to analyze.

If the pair do have a main concern, it’s the degree to which logging might exacerbate already-elevated turbidity levels during the winter, when heavy rain tends to wash the most sediment into streams.

“When we have those plant shutdowns during the winter, instead of just an overnight shutdown, it might be a 48-hour shutdown, because the water just stays brown longer,” speculated Maxwell.

Still, given the width of the DNR’s planned buffers and the plant’s existing filtration and storage capacity, Bighill and Maxwell are confident that they would be able to handle the extra sediment.

“Based on all the work the DNR has done to assure us that everything will be as least invasive as possible,” said Bighill, “we’re pretty satisfied that [the sale] is not going to degrade our water quality.”

Clean water wrecked?

Ziak, on the other hand, is far from satisfied.

After hearing about the timber cruising ribbons, he started doing some digging and, eventually, turned up the Forest Practices Application (FPA) for Fields Fir.

That FPA has been withdrawn, and the sale paused, in large part due to what he did next. First, he posted some flyers around town, inviting those who think the harvest is a bad idea to speak up. Then, he wrote to the DNR himself. In his letter, he claims the exact opposite of what Ogden, Maxwell, and Bighill believe: “If you carry out your plans to log that forest, you are going to destroy our only source of clean water.”

Ziak is something of a local celebrity. The historian and son of a local logger spends most of his time these days running the nonprofit OBON Society, which repatriates the World War II-era flags and personal affects of Japanese soldiers. But Ziak is also a long-time advocate for the preservation of old growth forests throughout southwest Washington. People read his flyers and listened when he called. Some wrote letters of their own to local DNR officials who, by late March, felt that there had been enough pushback to warrant at least a community meeting.

Fields Fir will not go to auction until that yet-to-be-announced meeting is held. In the meantime, Nasellians can ask themselves who they believe.

Legacy of harvest

Both the Lane and O’Conner Creek watersheds have been logged in recent memory. Since 2000, the privately-owned, easternmost sliver of the Lane Creek watershed has seen five different harvests, amounting to 250 acres, or 27% of the watershed’s total area.

In spring of 2007, the state’s Radar Love Timber Sale went to auction, a 48-acre unit of which sat squarely in between the two creeks. Then came the Great Coastal Gale in December of that year, which clocked in at a whopping 140 miles per hour on top of Radar Ridge and reduced huge swaths of the hillside to blowdown. By the time the state had finished cutting and salvaging what it could, 35 acres (6%) of the O’Conner Creek watershed and 282 acres (31%) of the Lane Creek watershed were either bare or covered in young trees no more than a decade old.

All of this activity, however, was confined to the upper portion of the watersheds. Since 2010, most of the lower portion has been formally designated a “Special Habitat Area” as part of the state’s Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP). (Planning for Fields Fir actually began as early as the late 2000s, at which point it was shelved for more than a decade while the DNR finalized the boundaries of those Special Habitat Areas.) These are mature, second-generation trees, in the midst of which some big stumps still bear the century-old springboard notches used by Swedish loggers to cut the old growth that preceded them. They are, according to Ogden, “not something we are going to harvest.”

Fields Fir includes most of what is still available in the upper watershed: younger, mixed conifer stands last logged in the 1950s and 1960s. Not quite as old as what’s been set aside downslope,

but at this point older than what was cut or blown down in the late 2000s and certainly older than what is typically harvested on private land.

In other words, those trees are in a sweet spot — “the best of what’s left,” as retired logger and Naselle resident Greg Blain put it. The winning bid for the 3 million board feet offered in the Radar Love sale was almost $735,000. By comparison, Fields Fir is projected to offer over 7 million board feet of timber. The proceeds, which would go toward a trust benefitting the University of Washington, will almost certainly be in the millions.

Element of unpredictability

What’s less certain is exactly what effect cutting those trees would have on the water that flows beneath them, into Lane and O’Conner Creeks, and ultimately to the taps and faucets of Naselle.

Almost everybody the Observer spoke to for this story acknowledged that the only way to know for sure is to wait and see. That includes Ogden and other DNR employees, Maxwell and Bighill, a professor of geography at OSU, and multiple other Naselle residents on both sides of the issue. Even Ziak himself notes in one of his flyers: “In a couple years we will know whether logging the watershed was harmful to our water.”

“I’m with Rex [Ziak] here,” said Bryan Penttila, a longtime logger who gets his water from the Naselle Water Company. “Cutting 174 acres? With, what, eight to 10 feet of rainfall per year? It’s gonna change the hydrology.” Minutes later, standing beneath a tree with a timber sale tag on it, he demurred: “From how wide these buffers are, maybe [logging] won’t wreck the water. Quite likely it won’t. Still, introduce the hand of man, and it just adds an element of unpredictability. But I got nothing to back that up.”

“Cutting 174 acres? With, what, eight to 10 feet of rainfall per year? It’s gonna change the hydrology. … From how wide these buffers are, maybe [logging] won’t wreck the water. Quite likely it won’t. Still, introduce the hand of man, and it just adds an element of unpredictability,” said Bryan Penttila, a longtime logger who gets his water from the Naselle Water Company.

Regan Wirkkala, the water company’s system manager up until 2019, doesn’t recall any significant or even noticeable changes in either water quality or quantity after the logging of the late 2000s. Even if he had, he may not have been able to connect it to the cutting of trees. “When those activities happened, we weren’t always aware that they had,” he said. “So I can’t say for sure if [logging] ever really impacted our water.”

If anybody can back up their opinion with objective data, it’s Dr. Julia Jones, the OSU geography professor who has spent decades studying how forest hydrology responds to a variety of human interventions.

Based on her and other scientists’ research over the years, two things always seem to happen in the wake of logging a watershed.

At first, streamflows increase year-round as water that previously would have been used by trees runs off instead. But then, as young, thirsty trees begin their skyward climb, streamflows dip below levels seen in old growth stands — especially during the summertime. This is because older trees have a greater ability to fine-tune their water usage and limit water loss due to transpiration, whereas younger trees prioritize growth and draw water accordingly.

What’s especially noteworthy is that the summer low-flow deficits persist for decades, so that 40 to 50 year-old stands, which are still growing, continue to produce significantly lower summer streamflows than old growth reference stands (up to 50% less, in some cases). But what about 60 to 70 year-old stands, like the ones included in the Fields Fir timber sale? Are those trees still racing each other to the top and sucking copious quantities of the water in the process? Or are they entering the phase of more efficient water usage that characterizes maturity? In other words, are they helping or hurting Naselle’s summertime low flows?

Here again, opinions diverge. In Ziak’s view, the forest in the upper Lane and O’Conner Creek watersheds has everything to do with regulating summer flow. “Our reservoir is the forest itself,” he said. Jeff Keck, the DNR hydrologist, doesn’t think that can be said of the 60 to 70 year-old trees. As for Dr. Jones, when asked at what point a stand might make that transition, she simply replied: “That’s a great question, and we wonder about that.”

Matters of philosophy

While some questions are scientific, others are matters of philosophy. And different philosophies produce different assessments of risk and reward.

Some, like Ziak, think that old growth should be retained and protected wherever possible, and that even the remotest risk posed to watersheds should be avoided. “They should just let it go,” he said. “Rather than copy what the industrial foresters are doing, [the DNR] should be doing what the forest itself wants, which is to let it mature.”

Others see just as much of a threat in human inaction, and a real need for active stewardship with both economic and ecological interests in mind. John Henrikson, owner of a 150-acre agroforestry plot in Oakville and another 40-acre parcel at the end of Government Road in Naselle, is one of these people. He doubts some of Ziak’s claims about the Lane and O’Conner Creek watersheds while acknowledging, like everyone else, that he can’t predict the future. But the real difference in their perspectives is a conceptual one.

“I think it’s hard to discuss this with somebody who’s stuck in the dichotomy between ‘do nothing’ and ‘pillage it,’” he said. “But it’s actually because of the efficiency of modern, industrial silviculture that most of the state’s land can even be in non-production mode.”

As for the state lands that are managed for production, Mike Henrie, the DNR’s forester for the Naselle Unit, hopes that they will remain sustainable, working forests in perpetuity. “We log it, we plant it, we thin it, and then we let it grow,” he said. “The goal is to continue that rotation forever, to provide revenue forever.”

Still others find themselves somewhere in between all these visions. “There’s definitely spots out there that would be fine to log and would have no impact,” said Maxwell. But when asked if he and Bighill would manage the watershed even more conservatively than the DNR, their response was resounding: “Absolutely.”

And they hope that becomes a reality. Should Fields Fir go to auction and be harvested, they hope to buy the land afterwards. They hope the water will not suffer. They hope to let the trees grow old.


Reader Comments(1)

Cgawith writes:

Wait and see? There is a plethora of data on the harm done by stripping the land and it's effect on the environment and wildlife. Since there is a global concern with water supply, let's just wait and see if this watershed is impacted. Yes, wait a few years and when the harm is done we can say oops, guess we figured wrong. Being from Wahkiakum county it offends me that the DNR thinks this is OK. And it sounds like Naselle water company can be easily swayed in a matter of 4 hour, wow.