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California’s concerning embrace of a new forest biomass industry

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Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Gloria Alonso Cruz had only just started working on environmental justice issues at a community organization in Stockton, California when she learned about a proposal to sell wood pellets from the town’s port to overseas energy markets.  Golden State Natural Resources plans to construct two wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, about 250 miles north of Stockton, with the goal of exporting a million tons a year. While forest-based biomass may sound innocuous, every part of the pellet production chain bears an environmental justice or pollution risk, says Rita Vaughan Frost, forest advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council.  First, trees are logged and stacked on trucks to be driven to processing facilities. There, the wood is turned into small pellets, similar to rabbit food. Then, diesel trucks transport the material hundreds of miles to a shipping facility and export terminal, like the Port of Stockton—where storage poses a fire risk. The pellets are later shipped to markets in Europe and Asia, where they’re burned to create electricity, generating carbon emissions.  Golden State Natural Resource’s proposal would allow it to harvest trees from forests within 100 miles of the two processing plants. This radius includes sixteen national forests in a region known for its critical biodiversity. A 20-year master stewardship agreement established with the U.S. Forest Service will allow the company to harvest from public lands through 2045, when the state is slated to achieve carbon neutrality.  Many might be surprised to learn that burning wood pellets causes more pollution per unit of electricity than coal does, says Dr. Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s worsening the climate emergency at a time when we’ve got to be rapidly cutting those carbon emissions,” Wolf says.  In Stockton, the threat of logging exports compounds environmental injustices that already exist. State laws don’t prevent companies from building polluting facilities in already-overburdened areas, nor is there any statute or legal framework that forces corporations to consider federal goals of transitioning toward renewable energy sources.   This means there are no federal or state guardrails to protect against the fact that “developers are not accounting for cumulative impacts, [or] the fact that these natural resources are finite,” Cruz says. In fact, Stockton already has a lot of pollution: It ranks in the 90th percentile statewide, according to CalEnviroScreen, an environmental hazard mapping tool. Compared with other cities across California, Stockton’s has some of the highest overall exposure to toxins like ozone, particulate matter, and groundwater threats.  Cruz says that is intentional, noting the communities of color and farmworkers who live and work in the state’s Central Valley have always shouldered the public health consequences that industries leave in their wake. In fact, California funneled public funds to the biomass industry in the 1980s and 1990s to support the construction of factories in low-income communities. Now, the wood pellet biomass industry and Golden State Natural Resources are poised to make the situation worse. In 2015, the state approved a new law that requires polluting corporations, like the wood pellet industry, to pay for environmental justice projects in disadvantaged cities like Stockon, but advocates like Cruz argue that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to pollute in the first place. Across the state, at least four active biomass plants are in census tracts that face the worst pollution burden.  Looking at how the biomass industry currently operates in the Southeastern United States heightens residents’ worries. Companies there have a track record of preying on overburdened, under-resourced communities, says Vaughan Frost. In the South, pellet mills are 50% more likely to be placed in communities of color that fall below the state poverty line. Although the industry likes to talk about providing jobs, in one North Carolina community, the poverty rate actually increased after a wood pellet production plant began operations.  Wherever pellet mills take root, pollution soon follows. A powerful odor, akin to plastic burning in a campfire, often emanates from these processing facilities. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that processing the wood creates volatile organic compounds, which mix with other pollutants to create ground level ozone and smog. Processing facilities also release toxins like formaldehyde, methanol, and acrolein, substances that can cause cancer even in small doses.  Hillaker warns that federal standards established by the Clean Air Act don’t take into consideration the multiple forms of pollution that overburdened communities face, she says.  “I’ve not really seen the pellet industry directly address, in any kind of meaningful way, the environmental justice impacts of their operations in the South,” Hillaker says. She explains they often argue “We are complying with our permits and therefore we’re not causing any harm.” But she says, “That’s not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in these local communities.”  Vaughan Frost is concerned that Golden State Natural Resources will similarly undermine the health and wellbeing of California communities.  Vaughan Frost believes the industry is “exploiting the state’s traumatic experience of catastrophic wildfires to sell their plan.” The company claims that cutting down forests will provide less fuel for wildfires—a claim that the state of California has historically parroted. Many scientists disagree. One recent study found that in fire-prone western states, emissions related to broad-scale thinning biomass harvest were five times greater than those related to wildfire. California also has a history of lumping in wood pellet biomass as a “renewable” energy source, which critics say obfuscates the compounding climate threats of the industry. She says these claims—that logging can prevent wildfires and create renewable energy— are a distraction from legitimate wildfire prevention strategies, like home hardening and vegetation management.  Advocates worry that once the forest is gone, recovery will be difficult. The wood pellet industry will soon be making incursions throughout the Sierra Nevadas, a much-loved mountain range that regularly draws outdoor tourists. Though the industry pledges to replant what they log, as climate change intensifies, there’s no guarantee monoculture saplings will be able to provide the same ecosystem services that the logged forest once did.  With abundant wind and solar energy available, Vaughan Frost says, “We do not need to sacrifice California forests and communities for this.” NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Learn more at http://www.nrdc.org and follow on Twitter @NRDC. LEARN MORE This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s concerning embrace of a new forest biomass industry on Mar 20, 2024.

Questions about environmental safety and community health loom over the greenwashed industry and proposed export scheme.

Gloria Alonso Cruz had only just started working on environmental justice issues at a community organization in Stockton, California when she learned about a proposal to sell wood pellets from the town’s port to overseas energy markets. 

Golden State Natural Resources plans to construct two wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, about 250 miles north of Stockton, with the goal of exporting a million tons a year. While forest-based biomass may sound innocuous, every part of the pellet production chain bears an environmental justice or pollution risk, says Rita Vaughan Frost, forest advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council. 

First, trees are logged and stacked on trucks to be driven to processing facilities. There, the wood is turned into small pellets, similar to rabbit food. Then, diesel trucks transport the material hundreds of miles to a shipping facility and export terminal, like the Port of Stockton—where storage poses a fire risk. The pellets are later shipped to markets in Europe and Asia, where they’re burned to create electricity, generating carbon emissions. 

Golden State Natural Resource’s proposal would allow it to harvest trees from forests within 100 miles of the two processing plants. This radius includes sixteen national forests in a region known for its critical biodiversity. A 20-year master stewardship agreement established with the U.S. Forest Service will allow the company to harvest from public lands through 2045, when the state is slated to achieve carbon neutrality. 

Many might be surprised to learn that burning wood pellets causes more pollution per unit of electricity than coal does, says Dr. Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s worsening the climate emergency at a time when we’ve got to be rapidly cutting those carbon emissions,” Wolf says. 

In Stockton, the threat of logging exports compounds environmental injustices that already exist. State laws don’t prevent companies from building polluting facilities in already-overburdened areas, nor is there any statute or legal framework that forces corporations to consider federal goals of transitioning toward renewable energy sources.  

This means there are no federal or state guardrails to protect against the fact that “developers are not accounting for cumulative impacts, [or] the fact that these natural resources are finite,” Cruz says. In fact, Stockton already has a lot of pollution: It ranks in the 90th percentile statewide, according to CalEnviroScreen, an environmental hazard mapping tool. Compared with other cities across California, Stockton’s has some of the highest overall exposure to toxins like ozone, particulate matter, and groundwater threats. 

Cruz says that is intentional, noting the communities of color and farmworkers who live and work in the state’s Central Valley have always shouldered the public health consequences that industries leave in their wake. In fact, California funneled public funds to the biomass industry in the 1980s and 1990s to support the construction of factories in low-income communities. Now, the wood pellet biomass industry and Golden State Natural Resources are poised to make the situation worse.

In 2015, the state approved a new law that requires polluting corporations, like the wood pellet industry, to pay for environmental justice projects in disadvantaged cities like Stockon, but advocates like Cruz argue that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to pollute in the first place. Across the state, at least four active biomass plants are in census tracts that face the worst pollution burden. 

Looking at how the biomass industry currently operates in the Southeastern United States heightens residents’ worries. Companies there have a track record of preying on overburdened, under-resourced communities, says Vaughan Frost.

In the South, pellet mills are 50% more likely to be placed in communities of color that fall below the state poverty line. Although the industry likes to talk about providing jobs, in one North Carolina community, the poverty rate actually increased after a wood pellet production plant began operations. 

Wherever pellet mills take root, pollution soon follows. A powerful odor, akin to plastic burning in a campfire, often emanates from these processing facilities. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that processing the wood creates volatile organic compounds, which mix with other pollutants to create ground level ozone and smog. Processing facilities also release toxins like formaldehyde, methanol, and acrolein, substances that can cause cancer even in small doses. 

Hillaker warns that federal standards established by the Clean Air Act don’t take into consideration the multiple forms of pollution that overburdened communities face, she says. 

“I’ve not really seen the pellet industry directly address, in any kind of meaningful way, the environmental justice impacts of their operations in the South,” Hillaker says. She explains they often argue “We are complying with our permits and therefore we’re not causing any harm.” But she says, “That’s not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in these local communities.” 

Vaughan Frost is concerned that Golden State Natural Resources will similarly undermine the health and wellbeing of California communities. 

Vaughan Frost believes the industry is “exploiting the state’s traumatic experience of catastrophic wildfires to sell their plan.” The company claims that cutting down forests will provide less fuel for wildfires—a claim that the state of California has historically parroted. Many scientists disagree. One recent study found that in fire-prone western states, emissions related to broad-scale thinning biomass harvest were five times greater than those related to wildfire. California also has a history of lumping in wood pellet biomass as a “renewable” energy source, which critics say obfuscates the compounding climate threats of the industry. She says these claims—that logging can prevent wildfires and create renewable energy— are a distraction from legitimate wildfire prevention strategies, like home hardening and vegetation management

Advocates worry that once the forest is gone, recovery will be difficult. The wood pellet industry will soon be making incursions throughout the Sierra Nevadas, a much-loved mountain range that regularly draws outdoor tourists. Though the industry pledges to replant what they log, as climate change intensifies, there’s no guarantee monoculture saplings will be able to provide the same ecosystem services that the logged forest once did. 

With abundant wind and solar energy available, Vaughan Frost says, “We do not need to sacrifice California forests and communities for this.”


NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Learn more at http://www.nrdc.org and follow on Twitter @NRDC.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s concerning embrace of a new forest biomass industry on Mar 20, 2024.

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Tree-killing beetle is on a death march through Southern California's oaks. Can it be stopped?

The goldspotted oak borer is just 14 miles from the Santa Monica Mountains' 600,000 oak trees and threatens to devastate forests throughout California, harming wildlife and increasing fire risks.

The tree was dead. Ron Durbin, who trekked with a group into a rugged Santa Clarita canyon, quickly spotted nearby trees pockmarked with D-shaped “exit holes,” a deadly calling card. This was the work of the goldspotted oak borer, explained Durbin, forestry division chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. And the discovery earlier this year alarmed those who know what this tiny beetle is capable of. Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science. The insects’ presence in East Canyon, along with nearby Rice and Whitney canyons, puts them just 14 miles from the oak-rich Santa Monica Mountains. They were also recently detected in a new area of Silverado Canyon in eastern Orange County. Durbin described the goldspotted oak borer as “just like a cancer.” It has spread across Southern California since its discovery in 2008 in San Diego County, where it has slaughtered more than 80,000 trees. “It’s metastasized,” he said. “It’s stage four.”A coalition of fire officials, land managers, local representatives and pest experts across Southern California are racing to slow the death march — acknowledging that eradication isn’t possible. Much is at stake. A goldspotted oak borer emerges from a tree. (Shane Brown) There are roughly 600,000 coast live oaks in the Santa Monica Mountains. Their demise would spell the loss of shade, wildlife habitat and beauty — and pose significant fire hazards. On May 7, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to explore declaring a state of emergency and finding funding for additional county Fire Department staffers to tackle the problem. It also calls for drafting regulations on the movement of firewood, which is the vehicle for the beetle’s long-distance spread. “This tiny invasive pest is a big threat,” Kathryn Barger, 5th District supervisor and motion coauthor, said in a statement. “I firmly believe our county needs to put its muscle behind proactively protecting our majestic oak forests from infection and death.” Although the goldspotted oak borer’s name strikes the ear as whimsical, it’s actually quite literal. The less-than-one-half-inch beetle is adorned with six gold spots on its back. Larvae hatched from eggs laid on an oak tree bore in to reach the cambium. The cambium is like a tree’s blood vessels, Durbin said, carrying water and nutrients up and down. The insect chews through the layer, and eventually the damage is akin to putting a permanent tourniquet on the tree.An infested tree will often sport a thinning canopy and red or black stains on the trunk, which Durbin said indicate injured areas where the tree is attempting to force out insects. The “confirming sign” is the roughly eighth-inch holes where the adults have chomped through to emerge and mate. The holes are D-shaped. When a tree has 25 or more exit holes, it’s probably a goner, Durbin said. Trees generally die within three years of an incursion.The insects go only for oaks. In the Golden State, they are attacking the coast live oak, canyon live oak and the California black oak. The beetle is native to Arizona, where the ecosystem is adapted to it and tree mortality is generally low. It’s believed that it traveled to San Diego County via firewood. By 2012, it took hold in Riverside County. Two years later, it appeared in Orange County. Then, in 2015, it reached Green Valley, an area east of Castaic in L.A. County. Its recent appearance in Santa Clarita represents a 20-mile jump south. About five years after landing in L.A., it was found in San Bernardino County. How to help What you can do to fight the goldspotted oak borer Report: If you think you see a tree infested with the goldspotted oak borer, report it to the L.A. County Fire Department: (818) 890-5719.Burn smart: Fire officials ask that people burn firewood where they buy it. Moving firewood long distances can provide a free ride for invasive pests. Volunteer: Earthroots Field School, stewards of Big Oak Canyon, seeks volunteers to help with a variety of tasks needed to tackle the infestation. Go to earthrootsfieldschool.org. It’s now present in the mountain towns of Wrightwood and Idyllwild, as well as Great Park in Irvine. Durbin expects it to hit Chatsworth soon. Firewood sellers are “like dots that connect these infestations,” said Rebecca Ferdman, policy director for the L.A. County Chief Sustainability Office. “It’s really just a couple of firewood distributors away from the Santa Monica Mountains.” The goldspotted oak borer reaching the scenic coastal mountain range was described as “the worst case scenario for Los Angeles County” in a 2018 report prepared by Durbin.He and other county officials agree that it will happen. The goal is to buy time.Why is it such a terrifying prospect? Durbin offered a comparison: Green Valley is home to about 15,000 coast live oaks, and all the recreation, wildlife and habitat — together called ecosystem services — are valued at $449 million. The Santa Monicas, with more than half a million trees, are valued at $17.9 billion.“Oak trees are essential to the biodiversity of the Santa Monica Mountains, and their health is something we must protect,” Lindsey Horvath, L.A. County supervisor and coauthor of the recent motion, said in a statement. Most of the mountains fall within her 3rd District. The spread there is “more of an issue of when and how quickly, [rather] than whether it will arrive there, and so the intent of all of this activity is really to slow the spread, and to monitor the spread, so that we can be on top of it already when it occurs,” Ferdman said.“Because we know that it’s going to cause likely widespread oak tree mortality,” she said. “That’s going to be devastating for the local ecosystem. It’s going to present fire risk, with dead trees abutting developments. It’s going to be very expensive to remediate.”By slowing the spread, Ferdman said, the county and other partners can begin planting younger oak trees, which the insect doesn’t target. It could also allow for better treatments to emerge.The Santa Monica Mountains are probably not the end of the line for the pest; just a devastating pit stop. Joelene Tamm, a graduate student with UC Riverside’s entomology department who studies the beetle, said researchers have modeled that it could spread all the way through California and into Oregon. She’s concerned with slowing its march north into the Sierra Nevada, where the trees are already contending with the Mediterranean oak borer, another pernicious beetle, and sudden oak death, a disease caused by a microscopic pathogen. “They got their hands full already,” Tamm said. “The more time we have to find an answer ... the better it is in the long term.”Many of the potential control methods are just emerging, complicating the battle against the beetle.When the Green Valley infestation struck, the only option was tree removal. About a year ago, the L.A. County Fire Department started treating certain trees with a systemic pesticide, which is injected into the base. Durbin called the nascent method “promising.” Other agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, have used a contact spray, which is applied to the outside of the tree, Durbin said. The department has held off on using the spray as it explores the environmental effects, he said.While pesticides are used “when the situation is right, it’s still expensive to do, still very controversial,” Ferdman said.Some battling the beetle are exploring other options. Newsletter Record heat. Raging fires. What are the solutions? Get Boiling Point, our newsletter about climate change, the environment and building a more sustainable California. You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times. Discovering the insect in Big Oak Canyon, a 39-acre property in Silverado Canyon, in January this year “brought us to our knees,” said Jodi Levine, executive director of Earthroots Field School, a nonprofit that owns the wilderness site. That infestation was caught late, Durbin said, so “they’re going to lose that ecosystem right there for a long period of time.”By late May, Levine said, they had identified nearly 160 affected trees — some more than 250 years old. About 29 acres of rough country haven’t been surveyed yet.Anxiety and urgency took hold as the nonprofit took in the scope of the predicament. If it didn’t act soon, the beetles would start another destructive life cycle.But Levine isn’t enthused about the recommended pesticides, which she said have environmental drawbacks. The spray can contaminate waterways and is harmful to aquatic life, while the injectable kills non-target species, such as butterflies and moths, she said.“It really feels like this ecological dilemma where you’re either choosing to let the oak trees die or poison some other aspect of the forest,” she said.So they’re testing a new method. Some trees in Big Oak Canyon are being treated with an experimental nontoxic limewash, while others are receiving pesticides. Heavily infested ones must be felled. The beetles, meanwhile, have started to emerge. UC Riverside’s Tamm, also a Squaxin Island Tribal member, said prescribed fire is the only currently available management tool that has potential to be used at a landscape level. Treating trees with insecticide is time-consuming and not always effective, she said, and can’t be done for every tree in the forest.Prescribed fire is “based on the indigenous land management practices of cultural burning that have been used in California for thousands and thousands of years by the native people,” she said, “and it was able to maintain the forest in a healthy manner.” A volunteer removes dead brush to create access to oak trees at Big Oak Canyon, where the goldspotted oak borer beetle could devastate the ecosystem. (Michael Muenzer) For several years, Tamm has worked alongside the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to research how indigenous cultural burning practices can be used to tackle the oak borer. Some of the preliminary results are promising. For example, Tamm conducted a prescribed burn test by putting pieces of infested wood — some of which had been exposed to fire — into crates and collecting the beetles that emerged. About 330 beetles surfaced from the untreated pieces, while 30 came out of the burned pieces.Tamm’s other focus is heat-treating firewood to eliminate pests. She hopes her findings will provide a first step toward implementing heat-treatment guidelines for the state.Lessons learned from the war on the oak borer could be applied to future invaders.Heat-treating wood, for example, can also help ward off the gypsy moth, spotted lanternfly and the Asian long-horned beetle, Tamm said. Ferdman expects climate change will usher in more invasive pests, which would create a need for more legislative action. A new reality might require rethinking what she described as mostly reactive responses of the past.“The creation of some sort of more proactive framework for how different departments that deal with the different facets of invasive pests in different ways could be formalized so that it could be mobilized more efficiently,” she said. “I think that’s a need we’re going to see in the future.”

Editorial: County at a crosswords, a pushback on growth and other election takeaways

The May election offers a few glimpses into voters' conflicted state of mind about the direction of Multnomah County, the role of big money and growth, the editorial board writes.

The May election was one in which dark money won – except when it didn’t. An election where voters tossed progressives – except when they kept them. An election reflecting taxpayer fatigue – except for the many money measures that passed.Try as we might to draw a neat narrative around the biggest Portland-area races on the ballot this spring, the only clear takeaway is that even Portland’s broadly liberal voting population is deeply conflicted about the direction to take at this moment in time.But the results offer a few glimpses into voters’ state of mind that are relevant not only for the November election, but beyond. Candidates, policymakers and elected officials should take note and prepare accordingly.Whither Multnomah County: Conventional wisdom suggests that Multnomah County residents want a significant shift from the policies pursued by former Chair Deborah Kafoury and current Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, particularly on homelessness and behavioral health. But the strong showing in the primary for Meghan Moyer and Shannon Singleton – two of the biggest progressives running for the county board with many of the same labor union, nonprofit and advocacy group endorsers – suggest that a large contingent of voters isn’t ready to make that break.Between now and November, voters should press the two candidates – as well as their opponents, Vadim Mozyrsky and Sam Adams – to keep up the pace in articulating the specific ideas, proposals and diagnoses of what’s going wrong. The candidates should act as if they are already on the board of commissioners and weigh in frequently on current agenda issues in front of the board – including Vega Pederson’s proposed budget; Multnomah County Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards’ push to create a 24-hour sobering center; the ongoing delay in ambulance response times; and the development of a “deflection” system for providing drug users with treatment as drug possession is recriminalized starting in September. Not only do voters deserve to know where candidates stand in advance of the November election, but whoever is elected should be well-steeped in the issues and ready to take charge in January when they join Vega Pederson, Brim-Edwards and newcomer Vince Jones-Dixon on the board.The limits of big money: In reality, there aren’t many limits on big money in Oregon elections these days. We saw how that plays out, most notably in the more than $3 million spent in blistering ads from Voters for a Responsive Government excoriating 3rd Congressional District candidate Susheela Jayapal for her time on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. Still, Jayapal wasn’t the only one targeted by the huge sums of money flowing in support of – or against – several candidates.The question is: how effective was it? While Jayapal lost decisively to state legislator Maxine Dexter in the Democratic primary, a similar onslaught of scorching ads against Singleton, who served as the interim director of the beleaguered Joint Office of Homeless Services, did nothing to halt her first-place showing in the race for Multnomah County District 2 commissioner. And while a flurry of ads attempted to paint prosecutor Nathan Vasquez as a favorite of the pro-Trump crowd, Vasquez, who had his own deep-pocketed supporters weighing in, prevailed over incumbent Mike Schmidt.While there’s little the state can legally do to limit the amount of such “independent expenditures” by outside groups in elections, requirements to disclose donors can help shed some light on who is seeking to sway voters in state and local elections. Legislators earlier this year passed House Bill 4024 under threat of a stricter campaign finance ballot measure going to voters. While the disclosure requirements are not as expansive as reformers sought, they will still force greater transparency once they go in effect in 2027. The key, however, is for the public as well as the good government groups who have been pushing for these changes to track implementation and make sure it matches the intent.Pushback simmering on growth: North Plains’ residents overwhelming approval of a ballot measure to halt the Washington County city’s plan to expand its urban growth boundary isn’t the end of the story. But it’s the latest sign of Oregonians’ unease over making the significant changes necessary to support economic development and reverse the state’s crushing lack of housing.The ballot measure challenged plans that had long been in the works to grow North Plains, a community of about 3,300 with median household income of $102,000, not far from Oregon’s Silicon Forest. With Intel recently securing an $8.5 billion CHIPS Act grant and other Oregon semiconductor companies receiving millions in federal funds, North Plainsis well situated to house the industrial, commercial and residential growth that such investment will generate.But critics objected to the size of the 855-acre increase, contended that valuable farmland would be lost and successfully put what is essentially a land-use decision on the ballot. Despite efforts by legislators and Gov. Tina Kotek to halt the vote – rightly recognizing that such administrative decisions should be handled through the existing process that allows for public appeals – a judge cleared the way for the referendum to go on the ballot. The upshot is that absent a Plan B from North Plains, the city’s expansion could be tied up in courts for years.Ideally, this is the kind of appeal that should go directly to the Oregon Supreme Court once the circuit court hears the case. Settling the question of whether voters can rightfully refer administrative land-use decisions to the ballot is critical for cities’ basic planning and adherence to state law. And considering many Oregonians’ antipathy to growth – primarily if it’s in their community – the prospect of voters in other cities mobilizing to stop boundary changes or other development decisions by popular vote is a very real concern. Oregon depends enormously on income taxes to pay for basic public services and continuing economic strength is vital to the state’s future. At the same time, the state has been underbuilding housing for decades and our shortage of 140,000 units is driving up rents, home prices, homelessness and contributing to declines in state population.Oregonians understandably are protective of the state’s environmental, agricultural and scenic heritage. But if they want to ensure a more sustainable future where people have good-paying jobs, families have homes and schools are adequately funded, they can’t focus on just preserving the past.-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board Oregonian editorials Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher. Members of the board meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can lend clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles. If you have questions about the opinion section, email Helen Jung, opinion editor, or call 503-294-7621.

He Set Out to Photograph All of California’s Forests. Then They Began to Burn.

Stefan Thuilot has been documenting a very big picture view of how forests are changing. The post He Set Out to Photograph All of California’s Forests. Then They Began to Burn. appeared first on Bay Nature.

The photos were like huge portals into forests all over California, ready to be entered if a spell allowed it. On one wall, you could step into a six-foot-tall image of a tangle of manzanitas, shiny and ochre-red, at Henry W. Coe State Park. On another, you could surround yourself in a spring-green fairyscape at a Briones Regional Park oak woodland. Near it was a grove of sequoias, outbeefing all other living things. Occasionally a figure, like a deer or the photographer himself, popped up in the midground like a two-inch Waldo, confronting the viewer with the enormity of the scene. But most photos had no central subject—no hero tree. “He’s not telling you where to look,” said Leslie Howard, a friend who accompanied photographer Stefan Thuilot, a Berkeley-based landscape architect, on some of his forest trips. He is giving you a way in. At the East Bay’s Las Trampas Wilderness Regional Preserve, blue oaks arch toward the prevailing sun. (Stefan Thuilot) At UC Berkeley’s Wurster Gallery last fall, surrounded by Thuilot’s giant photographs (up to 13 feet long), the crowd seemed quieter than the usual wine-loosened art scene. But not Stu Winchester, who pointed to a weenie of a conifer poking up amid some giants in Sequoia National Park. “Here are these stupid white firs. They pop up in the shade, grow so easily,” he said. “I’m so mad I could spit.” Winchester teaches ecology at Merritt College. The next photo over was from the same spot, after the kind of fire that could kill sequoias. Somehow the weenie white fir had survived. A scientist might ask why. The photo would serve, Thuilot hoped, as data. But it could not help being art, too. See giant forest photos Stefan Thuilot’s California Forest Project will be on display starting May 30, 2024, at the David Brower Center’s Hazel Wolf Gallery, at 2150 Allston Way in Berkeley. The exhibit opening is 6:30pm–8:30pm on May 30; it’s free with reservation recommended. A 2021 fire severely burned Redwood Canyon in Sequoia National Park. Typically, Thuilot notes, fires climb about 15 feet up these fire-resistant trunks; on these trees, the char reaches up 50 feet. In the middle, a weenie white tree has somehow survived. (Stefan Thuilot)Thuilot has photographed some 800 scenes like this across the state, in what he has dubbed the California Forest Project, and is still trucking along. The seed of the project was planted when Thuilot was taking a class with the UC Berkeley forest ecologist Joe McBride, who expressed frustration at the lack of a decent set of photographs depicting all the types of California forests. Mind you, there are a lot. Twenty percent of the state is forested. California has the biggest trees (sequoias), the oldest ones (bristlecone pines), and arguably some of the weirdest ones (Joshua trees). Innocently, Thuilot set out to photograph all forty-odd forest types and make himself useful. That was in 2017.  Forests are ridiculously hard to photograph. There’s always some tree in the way, and greens that are even a little bit off can look terribly wrong. But Thuilot likes a technical challenge, and he isn’t afraid to go big. The photographs’ locations are burned in his head, often because they were so hard to get to. At Calaveras Big Trees National Park’s south grove, which has not seen fire for 130 years, it was like mountaineering getting through the undergrowth, with chasms yawning amid piles of branches. Thuilot once fell seven feet into such a gap. All this effort impressed McBride, who had, in his classes, long used photos that he had taken from roadsides. “I should have followed his lead and gotten in there!” he said. A variety of manzanitas at Henry W. Coe State Park. (Stefan Thuilot)At each forest spot, Thuilot systematically shot a grid of 18–24 photographs by making precise adjustments to his tripod. Later, he stitched them together; making one image may take a day. The resulting images contained an extraordinary amount of information, and Thuilot brought his landscape architect’s precision to the printing, which he did himself. He was inspired by 19th-century landscapes, where the painters tried to fit everything into a single huge scene. McBride told me, “I see so much more in his photographs than I see in Ansel Adams’ photographs of the redwoods.” Where Adams used shadows for drama, Thuilot sought out overcast days to maximize the detail in the flora. In a century, someone could come back and shoot Thuilot’s scenes on another cloudy day, and learn what had changed. You can laser-scan the forests from aircraft and get images that are more immediately quantifiable. But Thuilot’s photos can show forests’ interior structure, from the understory up—and “they are much more readable,” McBride says. The photographs turned out to be useful a lot sooner than Thuilot expected, as California’s forests began to burn. Sometime in the past decade, they began changing on the scale of days instead of decades. Thuilot was among the first to re-enter Sequoia National Park after it burned in 2017, setting out for the spot he had photographed earlier. Seeing it charred, he surprised himself: he was in tears. “These trees have so much to say. They’re so big and ancient.” But he also realized he could do some useful repeat photography himself, instead of leaving it for the next generation. Now Thuilot is working with fire ecologists to document Sierra forests before and after controlled burns. “Those photos could document the change created by the prescribed fire in the grove,” wrote UC Berkeley professor Scott Stephens, in a terse mid-fire-season email. They “could complement field data taken from the same area.” Dense, charred juvenile lodgepoles and sugar pines at 7,500 feet elevation, near Kirkwood. Surviving cones, opened by the fire’s heat, offer hope, but regeneration is a fragile process. (Stefan Thuilot)At the gallery, McBride stood in front of the Sequoia National Park before/after. His ecologist brain was busy decoding their “hundred little messages.” The fire had been very hot. “What caused these trees to burn up so high, when there’s no fuel under them? What allowed this one to survive?” (He meant the weenie white fir.) Another photo, from the Russian Wilderness up near the Oregon border, showed eight different kinds of conifers. “To my knowledge, this is the only photo that captures that many tree species,” McBride said. A rare place, where such different ranges overlapped. Firewise, though, it looked like “trouble in the long run,” dense with greenery close to the ground. McBride, now an emeritus professor, had seen our current problems coming a long way off and had tried to warn people about it. “A lot of us predicted the fire era,” he said, modestly. “What I see is something really powerful,” gallery visitor Bill Anelli said, with a thump to his chest. “Stirring and beautiful.” Anelli, who teaches environmental ethics at Modesto’s community college, wished his college could house a chapel of such photographs for his students to sit with and decide, sans instruction, what they thought about them. Many of them had never visited forests outside the Central Valley, he said. “You’ve heard of No Child Left Inside? All of that.” It’s true, redwoods have been scientifically documented to have a kind of chapel effect. McBride said he once took decibel meters into Muir Woods, and found that people quieted down measurably when they got into Cathedral Grove, even without any signage or humans to hush them. At least two other gallery-goers suggested that Thuilot’s photos should be printed on billboards or tall buildings. If you can’t go see the forest, maybe the forest can come to you.  Most of the photos document the forest, not a single tree, though here is one exception. This photo, which Thuilot has made into a 13-foot-tall print, was stitched from 144 photos. (Stefan Thuilot)

Robbi Mecus, Who Helped Foster L.G.B.T.Q. Climbing Community, Dies at 52

Ms. Mecus, a New York State forest ranger who worked in the Adirondacks, died after falling about 1,000 feet from a peak at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

Robbi Mecus, a New York State forest ranger who led search-and-rescue missions and became a prominent voice within the L.G.B.T.Q. climbing community, died after falling about 1,000 feet from a peak at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Thursday. She was 52.Her death was confirmed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, where she worked for 25 years.Ms. Mecus, who worked mostly in the Adirondacks, searched for and rescued lost and injured climbers facing hypothermia and other threats in the wilderness. This month, she helped rescue a frostbitten hiker who was lost in the Adirondack Mountains overnight.At age 44, she came out as transgender, she said in a 2019 interview with the New York City Trans Oral History project. She then worked to foster a supportive community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning climbers in the North Country of New York.“I want people to see that trans people can do amazing things,” she said in an interview for a climbing website, goEast, in 2022. “I think it helps when young trans people see other trans people accomplishing things. I think it lets them know that their life doesn’t have to be full of negativity and it can actually be really rad.”Basil Seggos, former commissioner of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, called Ms. Mecus a “pillar of strength” and a tremendous leader for L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, noting she was “always there” for the most difficult rescues and crises.Subscribe to The Times to read as many articles as you like.

New Multnomah Falls parking fees spark debate, federal review

A private shuttle company is charging up to $20 to park in spots that used to be free.

Multnomah Falls visitors have already had to contend with traffic jams, new timed entry permits and occasional closures. Now some are staring at new parking fees.A small private parking lot across the street from the waterfall on the Historic Columbia River Highway has become a flashpoint for debate after new parking meters went up last weekend charging visitors up to $20 for what had previously been free spots.Sasquatch Shuttle — the company that operates the lot, runs a seasonal shuttle service to the falls and offers guided tours of the historic highway – implemented the new parking fees Thursday to alleviate congestion in the Columbia Gorge, the Salem Statesman Journal first reported Friday.The fees do not affect the main Multnomah Falls parking lot off Interstate 84, which remains free. Sasquatch Shuttle said it has leased the small lot on the historic highway from Union Pacific Railroad and will charge between $5 and $20 based on the day and season.The fees are reportedly rankling some visitors and have raised concerns within the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Multnomah Falls and is reviewing the situation.“While the Forest Service is interested in new approaches to reduce congestion and increase traffic safety around Multnomah Falls, we need to ensure it’s done in way that balances public access needs through an equity lens with our responsibilities to protect and preserve this landscape,” the federal agency said in an emailed statement.“We typically do that by requiring projects or changes like this to undergo a detailed approval process, including coordination with our partners, to ensure compliance with the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act,” the statement said.Nic Granum, deputy forest supervisor for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said although new parking fees have been under discussion for years, it isn’t clear whether Sasquatch Shuttle is permitted to implement them. The ownership of that parking lot is also currently in question, despite the arrangement struck between the railroad company and shuttle service, Granum said.The national scenic area is a confusing patchwork of federal, state, county, city and private lands, where small parcels can lead to major headaches whenever land ownership is called into question.Granum said there’s currently no timeline for sorting out the issue at Multnomah Falls, but emphasized the agency’s sense of urgency.“It’s a high priority for us to get this resolved,” Granum said. “I think the more clarity we have the better.”People visit Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.Jamie Hale/The OregonianFee signs are set up in the Sasquatch Shuttle pay lot at Multnomah Falls.Jamie Hale/The OregonianMeanwhile, Sasquatch Shuttle owners said they are simply implementing a crowd control measure that has been a long time coming, using their status as a private company to enact change much more quickly than the various government agencies that operate in the Columbia Gorge.“We’re doing what the government was unable to do,” co-owner Kent Krumpschmidt said.Sasquatch Shuttle also owns a 250-space parking lot in nearby Bridal Veil, where people can pay $5 for parking and a shuttle ride to Multnomah Falls. The company said those who don’t want to pay up to $20 to park in the roughly 48-space lot in front of the falls are encouraged to use their shuttle instead.On Tuesday afternoon, the company’s small pay lot near Multnomah Falls was nearly full, even though plenty of parking spaces were open in the free lot off Interstate 84. A parking attendant, who was busy collecting $10 payments, said the company would be charging $20 once its shuttle was up and running in May.The Sasquatch Shuttle parking, located steps away from the Multnomah Falls Lodge, offers premium access for those who want it, the company said. They also happen to be the only parking spots for those visiting the waterfall via the Historic Columbia River Highway, which runs parallel to the interstate.There is no convenient way to get from the historic highway to the main Multnomah Falls parking lot, forcing visitors to either bypass the main attraction of the famed “waterfall corridor” or jockey for spots in the small pay lot. That design has led to the infamous traffic congestion issues, which all parties in the Columbia River Gorge have been working to correct.“It’s a massive safety issue, and it’s also an environmental concern,” said Krumpschmidt, who is a former deputy with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “There were many instances where emergency response was delayed sometimes drastically.”Krumpschmidt and fellow co-owner Alan Dayley said they are not motivated by profit, but by a desire to alleviate that congestion. Money from the parking spots goes toward supporting their shuttle service, they said, as well as employees who monitor the parking lots.“Nobody likes change,” Dayley said. “No one’s going to like having to pay for something that’s historically been free.”As for the U.S. Forest Service review, the Sasquatch Shuttle owners said their understanding is that the government agency is not challenging the fees themselves but the installation of a fee machine in the parking lot. They also said the question of who owns the lot has been bouncing around for nearly two years, with no resolution and no evidence presented to them either way.Until it all gets resolved, the new parking fees will remain with peak tourism season set to begin in May.Visitors who park in the main lot off Interstate 84 will continue to be able to park there for free, though $2 timed entry permits will once again be required between May 24 and Sept. 2, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Those permits will not be required for cars parking in the new Sasquatch Shuttle pay lot.Granum urged the public not to frame the parking issue as a conflict between Sasquatch Shuttle and the U.S. Forest Service. Both entities share the same vision for Multnomah Falls and the Historic Columbia River Highway, he said.“We have different authorities and different objectives just by our nature, but we’re all users of the gorge and stewards of all the responsibilities we have,” including recreational access, environmental considerations and economic development, Granum said. “All of those things are important and sometimes finding the balance in those doesn’t happen overnight.”The owners of Sasquatch Shuttle agreed, citing their continued good relationship with the agency.“We like the forest service, we’re all going the same direction and we all have the same end goal in mind,” Dayley said. “We have no beef with them whatsoever.”--Jamie Hale covers travel and the outdoors and co-hosts the Peak Northwest podcast. Reach him at 503-294-4077, jhale@oregonian.com or @HaleJamesB.Our journalism needs your support. Subscribe today to OregonLive.com.

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