Forest Service plans to clear legal path for pipeline in Mount Hood forest
By Peter Zuckerman
The Forest Service plans to loosen environmental standards so the proposed Palomar natural gas pipeline can cut through 47 miles of the Mount Hood National Forest.
Building the pipeline would require clearing a freeway-wide path through the forest, including sections that, under forest management plans, are protected from clear-cutting, right-of-way easements and soil disturbance.
The Forest Service estimates, for example, that the pipeline would require clearing 106 acres of old-growth forest protected by the Mount Hood National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan.
The Forest Service would also have to revise rules that prohibit utility corridors; limit cutting around federally designated Wild and Scenic Clackamas River, spotted owl habitats, hiking trials and recreational areas; prevent use of heavy equipment for clearing vegetation on unstable slopes; protect riparian areas; and restrict building new roads.
In all, the pipeline would cost $800 million and extend 217 miles, feeding into a natural gas network east of the Cascades. Work crews would cut through public and private land using backhoes, rock cutters, tractor-mounted mechanical rippers and blasting tools, clearing about 710 acres of national forest land.
Although the path through the forest would be about 120 feet wide -- the equivalent of about 10 lanes of traffic -- the company would allow most of the trees to grow back, leaving a 23-foot-wide permanent easement.
Palomar officials say the benefits of the project more than outweigh the costs. Natural gas could ease potential petroleum shortages and provide an alternative to coal, which generates about 40 percent of the electricity used in Oregon, said Palomar spokesman David Dodson.
"We support renewable energy, but natural gas will have to be part of the mix," Dodson said.
Opponents of the project say unrecoverable forest would be lost and that a pipeline -- if it must be built -- should more closely follow existing roads.
"If this was a timber sale, it would be illegal," said Amy Harwood, program director for Bark, a conservation group that advocates preserving the forests surrounding Mount Hood. "Why should we allow an energy company special treatment?"
Although several government officials -- including Gov. Ted Kulongoski and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden -- have opposed the project, activists complained that most local politicians, such as the Clackamas County commissioners, have declined to take a public position.
Critics of the project note that natural gas lobbyists have donated about $200,000 to Oregon politicians.
Except under extraordinary circumstances, such as an imminent threat to public safety, the Forest Service generally doesn't reject pipelines, said Mike Redmond, Forest Service environmental coordinator for the Mount Hood National Forest.
Instead, the Forest Service balances competing needs, evaluates the impacts of the project and adjusts its management plan to offset environmental degradation.
The Forest Service, for example, might require Palomar to buy land for conservation, Redmond said. Or it might manipulate and thin vegetation so it grows faster and mimics some of the old growth lost.
The Forest Service will work out specifics of the offsets and many of the changes to the forest management plans once the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has authority over the project, decides whether to proceed.
The Forest Service used to take a more active oversight role, but administrative changes from the Bush administration have made it easier, faster and cheaper to get gas pipeline projects approved, said Daniel J. Rohlf, a law professor and the director of the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center at Lewis & Clark Law School.
"When FERC shows up at the door and says we want to put the pipeline here, the Forest Service doesn't say 'Let's think about whether we need this, where it should go and should it go through the national forest,'" he said. "The Forest Service says, 'OK, how do we have to amend our plans to get this done.' They don't take as hard a look as they used to."
Rewriting forest plans usually takes several years to complete. It is an involved process that includes public meetings, appeals and scientific studies. Environmentalists contend that the Forest Service plans to override that process by amending the plan in a faster and more superficial way.
Construction of the pipeline is scheduled to start in November 2011.
Although FERC can reject pipeline proposals, it approves most of them, agency spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen said. FERC tends to focus on requirements companies must meet to mitigate environmental damage, she said.
The agency probably will evaluate the Palomar project within the next 12 months. During that time, appointees by the energy-friendly Bush administration will continue to dominate the FERC board, she said. If approved, Palomar could use eminent domain to acquire the private properties needed.
The project is a joint venture of Northwest Natural Gas Co. and TransCanada Corp.
Contact Peter Zuckerman at email@example.com