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The Battle of Bull Run

When science meets politics and policy, the outcome may depend more on values than on objectivity

Douglas Larson

The Bull Run watershedClick to Enlarge ImageWhile watching Roman Polanski’s classic 1974 movie Chinatown recently, I was reminded of a similar Machiavellian drama that played out here in Portland, Oregon, over several decades. Polanski’s movie is based loosely on the California water wars of the last century involving controversial and underhanded efforts by the City of Los Angeles to acquire water rights in the Owens Valley for the city’s municipal water supply. What happened in Portland was also about greed and bureaucratic malfeasance that nearly destroyed the City of Portland’s principal source of drinking water, the Bull Run Watershed serving about one million people. The long, bitter struggle over the watershed’s use became known as the Battle of Bull Run.

As a participating scientist in this conflict, I learned some hard lessons about the role of scientists in factious environmental issues: First, the systematic process of scientific research is not well-suited to resolving issues in which prevailing economic or political forces demand simple, prompt answers. Second, scientists who seek nothing but truth in their investigations are often ignored or, worse, defamed by those whose economic or political agendas are threatened. And third, despite the common belief that scientific objectivity and science-based decisions will prevail over the rough-and-tumble world of confrontational politics and competing self-interests, the capacity of scientists to solve environmental issues fairly and expeditiously is usually overestimated. The ensuing, often acrimonious scientific debates become themselves stumbling blocks to final resolution. Meanwhile, the public waits for these interminable conflicts to be resolved, confused by the barrage of technical information and disinformation, and thus unsure of whom to believe. At stake is the region’s economic prosperity on the one hand, and environmental quality and dwindling natural resources on the other—in other words, competing values. In the end, resolution is often achieved not by scientific resolution and decision-making, but by people simply deciding what they value most.

Bull Run Watershed

Diapered horses moving logsClick to Enlarge ImageThirty years ago, I was asked to serve on a nine-member scientific panel commissioned by the City of Portland to oversee logging operations in the Bull Run Watershed. The panel—called the Bull Run Advisory Committee, or BRAC—focused on a key, extremely controversial question: What are the long-term consequences, if any, of large-scale, commercial logging in the Bull Run? The watershed, which is part of the Mount Hood National Forest, covers roughly 65,000 acres. In June 1892, President Benjamin Harrison signed a proclamation declaring the Bull Run as a national forest reserve, thus placing the watershed under federal protection as Portland’s water supply.

On April 28, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Bull Run Trespass Act (Public Law 206), which made entering the watershed illegal for persons other than “forest rangers and other persons employed by the United States to protect the forest, and Federal and State officers in the discharge of their duties, and the employees of the Water Board of the City of Portland.” Frank Dodge, Portland’s first superintendent of the Water Board (1897–1914) staunchly opposed any efforts to log the watershed.

The watershed remained almost inviolate for nearly 60 years, its runoff protected by a largely unbroken expanse of centuries-old trees. But in 1952, a Forest Service district ranger drafted a milestone secret memorandum in which he advocated logging in the Bull Run. Titled “Plan of approach to better management of the Bull Run Watershed,” the memo stated that “Many are convinced that to keep their water pure, the watershed must remain forever untouched.” And so, “a tremendous PR job is needed to change this thinking of some 50 years standing.” The Forest Service estimated that Bull Run timber sales would yield at least $1 million annually but was reluctant to admit that money-making was the chief incentive for logging the watershed. A more high-minded, compelling rationale was given: the need to lessen the chance of catastrophic fire by removing “decadent” old-growth timber. Fearing that the watershed’s old-growth forest was a fire hazard, capable of destroying the city’s water source, Portland’s mayor and city council quietly engaged in backdoor negotiations with the Forest Service to log the Bull Run.

Beginning in 1958, hundreds of loggers and their equipment entered the watershed daily to clear-cut magnificent stands of timber at great risk to the purity and safety of Portland’s drinking water. Logging continued apace despite a growing body of scientific evidence indicating that deforestation caused water-quality deterioration. By 1972, roughly 16,000 acres of the watershed had been clear-cut or otherwise impacted by logging activities. Forest Service plans called for clear-cutting more than one-half of the entire watershed by the year 2000.

Because of the watershed’s remoteness and a near-blackout on publicity, few people realized that the watershed was being logged. Those who learned about it were assured by the Portland Water Bureau that the logging was minimal and posed no threat to drinking water. Incidental news stories gave the impression that the logging was a mom-and-pop operation using horses to haul out downed timber. Newspaper photos pictured horses wearing diapers to avoid contamination. Public-relations photos, distributed by the Forest Service and the Water Bureau, showed the watershed as a pristine, undisturbed forest.

But, in fact, much of the forest was devastated, its majestic old-growth timber stands reduced to thousands of stumps stretching across an empty landscape scarred and battered by corporate deforestation and littered with debris left by logging crews. Industrial logging equipment, not diapered horses, extracted the logs and hauled them out of the watershed. Log trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment plied the estimated 300 miles of primitive, unsurfaced logging roads that honeycombed the watershed.

In 1973, a retired Portland physician named Joseph Miller Jr. sued the Forest Service for violating Public Law 206, the 1904 Bull Run Trespass Act. From his home near the Bull Run, Miller had often observed loaded log trucks coming out of the watershed, concluding that the logging was far more extensive than anyone had believed. In 1976, U.S. District Judge James Burns ruled in favor of Dr. Miller, finding that not only was the logging illegal, but that it failed to protect the forest, despite the claims of the Forest Service. Logging was halted, and the watershed was closed again to public entry. Shortly, though, acting on a measure sponsored by Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and Oregon Congressman Robert Duncan, Congress rescinded Public Law 206 and replaced it with the Bull Run Watershed Management Act of 1977 (Public Law 95-200). With this new legislation—signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on November 23, 1977—Bull Run logging was legalized.

Continued logging created sizeable clear-cut openings in the forest, exposing it to unimpeded runoff and wind. In December 1983, a powerful windstorm swept through the watershed, flattening about 300 million board-feet of timber. The Forest Service acknowledged in a 1987 environmental impact statement that 70 to 80 percent of the downed timber was immediately adjacent to clear-cuts. Citing the need to salvage fallen and shattered trees, to “protect water quality,” the Forest Service permitted loggers to clear-cut large segments of the roughly 6,000 acres affected by the storm. But this action only increased the risk of further timber blowdown.

Scientific Debates

Scientists, including those of us on the Bull Run Advisory Committee, were divided on the logging issue. Logging proponents argued that sustainable timber harvests reduced the risk of catastrophic forest fire, although records indicated that logging operations had started more than 95 percent of all fires reported in the Bull Run. Scientists opposed to logging claimed that clear-cuts and logging roads exposed the watershed to soil erosion and landslides. Dissent was evident even within the Forest Service: Although the supervisor of the Mount Hood National Forest insisted that “logging has had no effect on water quality,” Dr. Richard Fredriksen, a Forest Service watershed scientist, warned that logging could have a “dire and long-lasting effect” on water quality. “Water quality,” wrote Fredriksen in a 1975 Forest Service publication, “is optimum from forest land when the forest on that land remains undisturbed and human entry is restricted.” In July 1987, after 30 years of clear-cutting, road-building and other destructive land-use practices, the chief of the Water Bureau publicly declared that “water quality is now better, we believe, than it has ever been.”

All parties involved in the debate—BRAC, the Forest Service, the Water Bureau, the timber industry and environmental activists—generally agreed that any decisions regarding whether or not to log must be “science-based.” BRAC, for example, retained three independent, highly respected fire-management experts to evaluate the disputed policy of clear-cutting to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. They concluded that old-growth forests were less susceptible to fire than young stands of trees, thus challenging the notion that clear-cutting protected the city’s water source over the long run. Obviously disappointed, the Forest Service and the timber industry hastily organized an opposing panel of “in-house” fire experts, whose leanings were suspiciously pro-logging. Unsurprisingly, they promptly arrived at a different conclusion.

The Battle of Bull Run raged for years, with neither side able to move forward. Scientific data supporting one side’s position was summarily rejected by the other as inconclusive or incorrect. Weary of fruitless bickering, endless debate and personal attacks, scientists gradually withdrew from the field of battle. In 1989, BRAC was dissolved and replaced by another scientific panel that was equally ineffective.

Disaster Strikes, then Salvation

While the scientific debates dragged on, the logging continued unabated. Then, in February 1996, unusually heavy rains struck the watershed, sending untold quantities of eroded soil and other watershed debris into the City of Portland’s two storage reservoirs. Lacking a filtration plant to clean muddy water, the city was forced to shut down the entire Bull Run water-supply system. The city switched to its emergency backup water source, a well-field situated along the Columbia River. Had this source not been available, Portlanders would have surely found themselves in a drinking-water crisis. But the well-field itself has potential problems, notably its limited capacity to supply water over a long period and its location near industrial areas where soils were heavily contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals.

Shortly, at the behest of Portland’s mayor and city council, Senator Mark Hatfield introduced legislation in Congress that now prohibits all logging in the Bull Run. This legislation, called the Oregon Resource Conservation Act of 1996, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 30, 1996. Ironically, it was Hatfield’s 1977 legislation that rescinded the 1904 Bull Run Trespass Act and reopened the watershed to the timber industry.

The Battle of Bull Run had finally ended. The scientific debate over the effects of logging became a moot point. The long and arduous road taken 20 years earlier by scientists in search of the truth ended abruptly with a political decision. What the public valued most was clean, safe drinking water secured for themselves and their children’s children. Deeply troubled by the sudden and unexpected failure of their drinking-water source, Portlanders simply decided that waiting for scientific answers was not worth further risks.


Although the Bull Run watershed is now officially protected, the excellent water it once produced is muddied during winter rains by runoff from exposed forest soils and abandoned, eroded logging roads. The Water Bureau attributes the muddiness simply to “torrential rains,” but yearly rainfall patterns and amounts have not changed significantly since 1900. Unable to filter the water to meet drinking-water standards, the Water Bureau is forced periodically to shut down the Bull Run system and switch to backup wells. The shutdowns, lasting two weeks or longer, are becoming a yearly occurrence. Records indicate that the Bull Run system was never shut down during the nearly 70-year period that preceded logging.

Portlanders are now faced with the ugly trade-off of periodically drinking wellwater, the reliability of which is questionable, or installing an expensive filtration system—costing up to 500 million dollars—to avoid shutdowns. This is a legacy of watershed mismanagement and failed stewardship. Centuries will pass before the watershed is fully restored to its pre-logged grandeur.

This article is dedicated to Dr. Joseph Miller Jr., who passed away in June 2007 at age 96. Dr. Miller fought vigilantly and incessantly for 20 years against the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry to save the Bull Run watershed. For this, the City of Portland and its citizens owe him a great debt of gratitude.

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