Belying complaints, arborist gives seal of approval to Oregon's removal of burned trees

An independent arborist's report largely gave high marks to Oregon's hazard tree removal projects in the wake of the September 2020 fires.

Posted: Jun 7, 2021 3:30 PM
Updated: Jun 9, 2021 4:40 PM

SALEM, Ore. — Despite allegations of mismanagement and excessive tree-cutting, an independent arborist commissioned by the Oregon Department of Transportation gave a favorable grade to the state's handling of hazard tree removal projects in the wake of the September 2020 fires.

Concerns about the tree removal efforts bubbled up in April, with a combination of whistleblowers and conservation groups alleging that state-contracted crews were cutting down trees unnecessarily, with little oversight or poor management. Senator Jeff Golden urged Governor Brown to temporarily halt the project following a legislative hearing where many of these concerns were aired.

“No more trees should be felled in connection with these contracts (subject, perhaps, to very narrow exceptions for compelling and well-documented reasons) until these allegations are competently vetted,” The Oregonian quoted Golden as saying. “My strong hope is that this work will resume in a manner that deserves the full confidence and support of Oregonians in general, and those devastated by the 2020 wildfires in particular.”

In response to the allegations, the Oregon Department of Transportation hired an independent arborist to inspect the agency's hazard tree removal project — Galen Wright, president of Washington Forestry Consultants. The report, released on Monday, covers tree removal projects on the Highway 22 corridor (Beachie Creek Fire), Highway 126 corridor (Holiday Farm Fire), and Highway 224 corridor (Riverside Fire).

Wright found that the arborists and foresters used in tree assessment almost universally had the necessary qualifications to do the work, and that 99 percent of trees marked for removal were either dead or in poor condition. More than 96 percent of trees sampled were correctly marked or left unmarked, "based on the current state of knowledge of the forestry profession."

"Considering the variability of the tree populations, the difficult terrain, weather challenges, and variation of damage to each tree from a crown or ground fire, this degree of agreement is as good as can be expected," Wright concluded.

Wright's report made no recommendations for changes to the current ODOT protocol, finding that the agency "has the necessary operational plan, protocols, contracts and requirements necessary to conduct and provide quality assurance for this hazard tree mitigation program."

Nonetheless, ODOT said Monday that it has put in additional checks-and-balances to counter potential wrongdoing. Arborists and foresters are being paid hourly instead of by the tree, and cutters can be fined $2,000 for each unmarked tree that is cut.

“With our initial charge to move quickly, and knowing this work is unprecedented for Oregon, Mr. Wright’s review helps underline the good work underway while providing a roadmap for adapting other areas moving forward," said Mac Lynde, an ODOT deputy administrator who heads the three-agency debris task force. "While we work to ensure no more lives are lost at the hands of the 2020 wildfires, we will continue to incorporate feedback from a range of partners to make sure this work is done right and look forward to future planning conversations if this operation becomes an unfortunate new reality for Oregon.”

State officials estimate that there are roughly 140,000 fire-damaged trees that have been assessed and marked in these burned corridors. More than a quarter of those trees have been cut or removed as of this week.

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