A precarious stretch of U.S. Highway 30 has prompted the Oregon Department of Transportation to trim a section of forest responsible for dangerous ice and falling trees.
But removing the trees is as simple as it is complex. There are streams with fish habitat, nesting bald eagles and lush scenery to consider.
ODOT says the project is meant to improve safety but that it can also be used to enhance the surrounding habitat.
The potential environmental impacts required coordination with Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The land is owned by ODOT but is subject to rules and regulations under the Oregon Forest Practices Act. ODFW reviewed the project and gave recommendations about how to minimize impacts on bald eagles.
Highway 30, which winds along the Columbia River from Astoria to Portland, is similar to other routes connecting the Oregon Coast to the Willamette Valley. Most cut through forestland and are battered by strong wind during the winter months, causing power outages from downed trees and harming drivers.
According to Richard Little, a spokesman for ODOT, more than 650 incidents involving trees or debris were reported on coast-to-valley roadways during the past three winters. The incidents include crashes, obstacles in the road and complete closures.
Red alder trees that occupy both sides of Highway 30 near Svensen have been troublesome for a three-mile stretch. The segment of highway has had a crash rate higher than the state average for three out of the past five years, Little said in an email.
The slender alder trees reach an average of 80 feet, but can get as high as 100 feet, stretching out over the highway in pursuit of sunlight. They are then susceptible to falling on the road and blocking traffic. The trees, although averaging between six and 14 inches in diameter, can shade the highway and keep ice from thawing.
The highway is considered a moderate to heavy travel corridor, according to ODOT, supporting as many as 8,600 vehicles a day.
Since severe winter storms in 2007 and 2008, ODOT has focused on thinning roadway trees in Tillamook and Clatsop Counties.
“We want to prevent total closures and partial closures during storms,” said David Neys, ODOT district manager for Astoria.
Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin has been outspoken about the risks for several years. He said during major winter storms fallen trees have blocked drivers and stranded residents. He said it became ridiculous because anytime there was ice or snow trees would fall.
On Jan 1, a Senate bill, passed by the Oregon Legislature and signed by Gov. John Kitzhaber, went into effect allowing ODOT to remove hazardous trees without obtaining a local permit. The bill was carried through the legislative process by state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose.
Bergin said that the legislation “allows for common sense to come back in to our road system and keep Clatsop County and the entire state safe while traveling on the roads.”
The Highway 30 section is part of several ODOT projects in the past five years.
“It is very important that ODOT do everything possible to manage this and other corridors in a way that provides a consistently reliable passage for residents, tourists, emergency vehicles and freight,” ODOT spokesman Little said.
This particular tree removal project is a balance between safety and habitat preservation. Twilight Creek, Mary’s Creek and Bear Creek intersect with the highway and the agency was required to submit a written plan to ODF indicating their intention to remove select trees.
In Oregon, creeks, streams and rivers are required to have a tree buffer on public and private forestland. These buffers are meant to keep water temperature down and decrease possible erosion. If a waterway is vital for fish spawning, a greater amount of protection is given.
In the written plan, ODOT indicated that select trees would be removed and only those that posed maintenance concerns. They said that many of the trees cut down would be left for habitat unless they posed a hazard by sliding into the highway or blocking culverts.
The agency plans to replant two natives species, western red cedar and sitka spruce, near the creeks where red alders over 11 inches in diameter have been removed.
The project had to take into account bald eagle habitat. ODOT said that larger conifers were not part of the removal process. “We believe this will eliminate the possibility of removing a roosting or nesting tree on our right of way,” they wrote.
The project is being conducted during the beginning of the year, under the recommendation of ODFW, because it is outside of the bald eagle’s nesting season.
In addition to treading lightly on behalf of fish and wildlife, ODOT also had to account for the highway’s surrounding scenery.
Oregon has designated U.S. 30 as one of its scenic highways, protecting the tree canopy for driver’s enjoyment, unless it causes safety concerns.
For harvest operations near a scenic highway, the law requires at least 50 healthy trees of at least 11 inches, or that measure within an area of 40 square feet, must be temporarily left on each acre.
ODOT is replacing the red alders with the two native tree species, but will also keep the dense patch of forest intact, according to their written plan.
“In almost all areas, scenic buffer minimums will not be reached by removing these trees,” they wrote.
Custom Excavating, a Warrenton-based contractor, is conducting the tree removal and is scheduled to complete the project by Feb. 28.
ODOT District Manager Neys travels by the site from Svensen and said the project is going well.
“The timber sale has worked fairly well,” he said. “They can accomplish a lot in a day,”
ODOT is also replacing a culvert east of Astoria on Highway 30, a project scheduled for completion in September 2014. Flaggers are controlling single-lane traffic delays are estimated at 20 minutes.
The tree project also calls for 15-20 minute delays with one lane open for drivers and flaggers directing traffic.