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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

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.

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