Rocky Houston

Over the past few weeks, there have been several letters to the editor and other comments in the community regarding the hazard tree removal conducted by the Douglas County Parks Department, which I oversee. This letter is intended to provide an overview of the process behind the decisions to remove hazard trees.

Like all other department directors, one of my roles is to insure the safety of the public and mitigate liability to the county. Therefore, I want to make it clear: when a hazard tree is identified in a county park, it must be addressed. We must either remove the tree or deny access to the area near the tree. Otherwise the county, and therefore the taxpayers, are liable if it should fall and damage property or injure a person.

In the past year, we have had trees that were not properly identified as hazards, fall and significantly damage vehicles and personal property. Additionally, recent storms have caused identified hazard trees to fall before we could remove them.

In late 2017, dead trees were identified in a few parks near park buildings and campgrounds. This discovery prompted us to evaluate developed areas of our parks in order to identify hazard trees. The county forester toured four parks where we had significant concerns. After the evaluation, an initial number of trees were identified and bids were sought to see if we could get a contractor who would fall the timber, purchase the hazard trees and clean up the debris. In June 2018, the RFP was released but no bids were received. We then contacted potential contractors to see if any informal bids would be submitted. Again, we received no interest.

For this project, hazard trees were identified as any tree that posed a risk to park patrons, park buildings, park infrastructure and/or park patron’s property. Where a tree was identified as being a potential risk to fall, but posed no risk to these identified targets, it was not classified as a hazard tree. During October 2018, my staff and I toured the hazard tree areas and identified a significant increase in trees that were dying.

It appeared that the dry summer (followed by the preceding years of drought) and substantial beetle infestation had a significant impact on the trees at Whistler’s Bend Park, as well as Chief Miwaleta RV Park and Campground. The rapid decline in the condition of trees and concerns over the safety of park users led us to be proactive in addressing hazard tree removal. Just as utility companies work diligently to identify and safely remove hazard trees in order to prevent power outages and road closures, your parks department does the same to ensure the safety of our park users.

After the RFP bid process had been exhausted, the county was faced with the direct responsibility of hazard tree removal. This is when I made the decision to hire a local tree faller. The Parks Operations Manager and I worked directly with our tree faller to identify the trees that needed to be removed. The trees at Whistler’s Bend Park are maintained to enhance the recreational aesthetics of the park, not forestland (i.e. land which is used for growing and harvesting of forest tree species). The sole purpose of the hazard tree removal was to improve public safety and ensure that the sites are open for recreating public. Trees were not cut to offset the operational costs of the department.

Some citizens have voiced their concern about the increase in the number of trees removed from Whistler’s Bend Park vs the number estimated in June 2018. The public should know that we were just as surprised at the increase in the number of hazard trees that had to be removed as those concerned citizens. However, at the time, we were focused on improving safety and not the tree count.

I stand by the Parks Department’s decision to address this safety concern. I respect the differing opinions and appreciate the input on alternative practices. We will continue to work on improving our engagement with partners and in communicating with the public on decisions being made to enhance the recreation in our parks. However, it should be noted that we worked and complied with the Oregon Department of Forestry in their requirements regarding the submission of an action plan and providing public notice. We will continue to work with ODF officials to ensure compliance with their rules and regulations.

As you can see managing parks is a dynamic process, with ever changing needs. We are working hard to provide the best recreational sites in the state of Oregon for Douglas County citizens to use and enjoy. But, accomplishing this requires smart management that balances safety, accessibility and usability enhancements.

Rocky Houston is the Douglas County Parks Director.

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So all the people calling for Rocky's firing can put away their pitchforks and torches. This is a legitimate explanation, from a man with a tough job. Dying and dead trees are everywhere, and we can't have them in our parks. Climate change is real, with a lot of negative affects.

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