Environment Oregon
The Bend Bulletin

A push for Crater Lake protections

Conservationists want more area designated as wilderness
Andrew Clevenger

WASHINGTON — A coalition of conservationist groups has launched a campaign centered on Crater Lake, hoping to expand the federally protected land in and around Oregon’s only national park.

The proposal, which also would bar helicopter tours over the lake, calls for Congress to designate an additional 500,000 acres as wilderness, the highest level of protection available on federal lands. The goal is to link smaller wilderness areas that already dot the landscape and create a “wildlife corridor” along the crest of the southern Cascades, said Dave Mathews, a preservation associate with Environment Oregon.

In announcing the proposal, the environmental groups cited three proposed or active timber sales as a major motivation for their concerted effort to increase protections around Crater Lake.

The U.S. Forest Service plans for the area include the D-Bug timber sale, which would allow for commercial harvesting of more than 16 million board feet from the area surrounding Diamond and Lemolo lakes in the Umpqua National Forest just north of Crater Lake. Another timber sale is under consideration in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, along the western border of the 180,000-acre Crater Lake National Park.

“It’s the fact that this is up for grabs and that there are companies bidding for it that we would like to challenge,” Mathews said. “This is a critical area that should be protected, no matter who is reaching for it.”

Fire prevention is key

An important part of the Forest Service’s plans are fire prevention and the protection of life and property. Diamond Lake has more than 100 homes on its western shore, as well as two resorts and hundreds of campsites, which attract 700,000 visitors a year.

“Fire managers agree that a substantial fire hazard exists within the D-Bug planning area; I concur with this assessment,” wrote Umpqua Forest Supervisor Clifford Dils in his April 2011 decision justifying the timber sale. “On any given mid-summer weekend, thousands of visitors and employees are likely to be in the area at any one time. A large fire in this area could have catastrophic consequences, both in terms of damage to infrastructures and to people who are in the area at the time of the fire.”

An ongoing mountain pine beetle infestation, which has killed many lodgepole pine trees, also makes the forest more susceptible to fires.

“The parts of the timber sale that were geared at trying to reduce those risks, that’s the sort of stuff that we don’t oppose,” said Sean Stevens , director of communications for Oregon Wild, another member of the coalition that also includes Umpqua Watersheds and the Crater Lake Institute. “The places where we disagreed is in the back country where the natural cycle (of fires and regrowth) will take care of the forest.”

A previous version of the D-Bug plan, which has since been modified after objections from various parties, including Oregon Wild, called for logging of 4,000 acres of backcountry, Stevens said.

“There are still a few areas where they couldn’t resist commercial logging in roadless areas,” he said.

Forest Service spokesman Tom Knappenberger said the agency didn’t have a position on the environmental coalition’s wilderness proposal. He noted that all of the Forest Service’s actions go through an open process that allows for public comment and input.

The D-Bug sale is made up of seven different smaller sales, the first of which took place in September 2010, he said. That sale involved the removal three million board-feet of potential fuel for a wildfire from the Diamond Lake area, he said.

“The reason we’re doing the D-Bug sale is for safety,” he said, “to thin out trees and brush around the lake so that these residences would be protected and would have escape routes to get to safety if there was a fire.”

If the proposed areas were declared wilderness, it would create a 90-mile stretch of forest with only four road crossings, said Stevens .

State’s wilderness lags

Oregon lags behind its neighbors in terms of land that has been designated as wilderness, which can only be done by an act of Congress, with only 4 percent of its total land qualifying, he said. By comparison, Washington has 10 percent, California 15 percent, and Idaho 8 percent.

In 2009, when Congress last approved a group of wilderness areas in Oregon, the total area was about 200,000 acres. That was the biggest bill since 1984, when more than 800,000 acres were designated, he said.

Both Mathews and Stevens recognized it can take a long time to build the necessary groundswell of support before Congress will take action. Their organizations have started educational and outreach programs, but there is already widespread support for protecting the pristine beauty of Crater Lake, they said.

“Aside from the spectacular places and the value of having that unbroken habitat along the Cascades, the thing that kickstarted the effort was proposal of helicopter tours along the rim of the lake,” Stevens said. “People don’t go to Crater Lake to hear the buzz of helicopters overhead.”

On the issue blocking helicopter tours, the coalition has the firm support of both Oregon senators.

Last month, both Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were among a bipartisan group of seven senators who sent a letter to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Commerce Committee, urging him to include language that would allow the National Park Service to reject commercial flyover proposals out-of-hand in the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.

“This is Oregon’s gem,” Wyden said. “This is one of the real treasures of our state, and what people really like there is the quiet,” Wyden said. “The people of our state just don’t want to see helicopter overflights.”

Under current law, the Park Service cannot deny a flight proposal until there has been an air tour management plan filed, which can be a time-consuming and costly process, he said.

The proposed wilderness designation is a separate issue, he said.

“I don’t make any judgement on those kind of issues without first listening to people from home,” he said.

Merkley also opposed helicopter flights, and had not yet formed an opinion on the wilderness proposal.

“It’s almost a spiritual experience to visit Crater Lake,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine arriving at the ridge to have the beat, beat, beat” of a helicopter overhead.

“(That) would be a real tragedy for a phenomenal jewel that we have in Oregon. I think it would deeply compromise the experience of people visiting it.”