As an Oregon Department of Transportation crew systematically cut down trees near her property along U.S. Highway 101, Cannon Beach resident Kirsten Massebeau took out her iPhone to document the department’s March 9 tree-thinning project — and to protest it.
Accusing ODOT of “destroying our scenic byways,” she videoed the workers and their machines felling alders, sawing them and hauling away the debris.
Between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., five ODOT employees and three contractors from Trails End Recovery, a Warrenton-based timber recycling company, removed about 30 trees 8 or more inches in diameter between the city’s north entrance and Sunset Boulevard. Approximately two-thirds of those trees were taken from the highway’s east side, near Kirsten Massebeau’s home in Elkland Court.
In addition, the crews cleared 20 to 25 smaller “brush” trees, resulting in the total removal of about 55 trees that ODOT officials had determined were leaning perilously over the highway, posing a potential threat to drivers.
The crew “flush cut” the stumps to make them even with the ground and then covered them with forest material to disguise them.
The roadway was “groomed clean,” Public Works Director Dan Grassick wrote in an email to a reporter. “If you didn’t know the work was done today, you would be challenged to know any trees were actually removed.”
Eventually, ODOT may plant new trees in that stretch of highway corridor, where about 5,000 trees currently stand, according to an estimate by Bill Jablonski, manager of ODOT District 1.
Because the trees were in a state right of way, state law allowed ODOT to remove them without first obtaining a city permit.
It was the first round of a tree-thinning project expected to take several years. However, ODOT will not return for further thinning until next year, said Kevin Werst, the department’s transportation maintenance manager for the Warrenton Section of District 1.
A year ago, the department marked for removal about 200 dead and dying trees considered to be in danger of collapsing onto the highway. When ODOT identifies “hazard trees,” Werst said, “We’re obligated to take care of it.
“We have a responsibility to maintain the right of way,” he said. “And some people don’t want it maintained to the level that we would like to have it maintained.”
Given that ODOT has little choice but to eliminate the worrisome trees — and could be held legally liable for accidents that occur by leaving them alone — Mayor Sam Steidel said he hopes ODOT approaches the ongoing project as “an annual maintenance program” rather than an all-at-once endeavor.
Originally, the department planned to remove 70 trees this month, Werst said.
But with a maximum of $10,000 to spend on the project’s first stage, ODOT decided to reduce the number of trees removed this year, Grassick said.
The entire project cost $7,300, Werst said, adding that the combined crew cost about $760 per hour.
Trails End Recovery will sell the 40 to 60 tons of felled timber for a profit, he said. The company will then give ODOT a $400 to $600 discount on the final bill.
Whether ODOT still intends to remove all 200 trees, even if it happens over a longer time frame than expected, Werst could not say.
Former Mayor Mike Morgan said he hopes ODOT is “willing to only take out the trees that are absolutely needed and not work toward a goal of any sort.”
“We’re trying to keep clean-up and damage to a minimum. We know that the folks around here are real sensitive to the project,” Werst said. “I understand the sensitivity.”
“I’m not very happy about how this has played out,” said Ed Johnson, an Elkland Court neighbor of Kirsten Massebeau.
Though the loss of more than 50 trees is preferable to losing 70, Johnson said he had expected Will Caplinger, the city’s arborist, to weigh in on the issue before the thinning took place.
Last year, when ODOT informed Cannon Beach of its tree-thinning plan during a public meeting, city officials said the city would pay Caplinger to independently review the targeted trees. But when it appeared that ODOT would not follow through with the plan, the independent review was dropped.
If ODOT wanted to spend its limited funds on a project that would benefit Cannon Beach, the department should have invested in seismically upgrading the woodpile bridge over Ecola Creek, Johnson said. Ideally, the bridge should have taken precedence over tree thinning, he added.
And, as long as trees were getting cut, Johnson argued, the raw timber, should have been placed in the creek as “woody debris” to help restore salmon habitat, rather than given to Trails End Recovery to sell on the timber market.
Above all, Johnson said he wished there had been more opportunities for public participation and citizen involvement.
“Yeah, this is (ODOT’s) highway. (These are) their trees, in a sense. But this is a public issue that some people are very concerned about,” he said. “Any time you start cutting down trees in Cannon Beach, somebody should be saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute — do we need to do that?’”
With some of their buffer now gone, Kirsten Massebeau and her husband, Phillip Massebeau, said they are concerned about louder highway noise and stronger winds hitting the mature trees that surround their property. “Not to mention the road is not as pretty when you’re coming down through Cannon Beach anymore,” Phillip Massebeau said.
“We know there was nothing we could do about it, but it would have been nice to at least have some say,” he added. “It’s a real drag.”