Starting Saturday, Feb. 16, Sorosis Park will close as a contractor removes 35-40 dead and dying trees throughout the park that are infested with the mountain pine beetle.
The goal is to have the work completed by Feb. 24, but Northern Wasco County Parks and Recreation District Executive Director Scott Baker said that’s “aspirational” and is honestly unlikely.
“We looked at different options for keeping portions of the park open, but with logging trucks coming in and out, felling happening, multiple work crews, for the safety of the public and our staff we’re going to completely close Sorosis Park,” Baker said.
“We’re looking to do a large amount of work in a short amount of time,” he added. “If there’s groups that want to get involved, we could certainly use the help.” The parks district can be reached at 541-296-9533.
Covenant Christian Church has already signed up to help, Baker said. He is hoping volunteers have trucks and can haul off large limbs and do what they want with them.
He said the parks district will reopen the park “when it’s safe. If there are piles of limbs on the ground, I’m comfortable with opening the park. If we have large trucks moving around, and equipment, we’ll have to keep the park closed.”
In 2017, a study found 70 dead and dying trees. Of those, 17 were removed. With a goal of having 35-40 gone this year, the hope is to get the rest felled next year, Baker said.
The bugs can kill a tree in a single season, he said. Once a tree is infested, there is nothing that can be done to save it. Damage starts at the top and works its way down.
The most obvious section of affected trees is on the east side of the park, next to Columbia Gorge Community College. “You can’t miss them,” Baker said. If one looks west from the college parking lot, “you’ll see large stands of dead trees.”
The pine beetle infestation is common, and attacks are more likely in areas where pine trees are closer together, such as at Sorosis. Baker didn’t know how many trees are in the park.
“It’s upsetting. It’s heartbreaking, but we would rather take the trees down than have them fall down,” Baker said of the dying trees. “And just this winter a top of one of these dead trees broke and fell, and there’s several near the playground.”
He said, “We need to be proactive. As heartbreaking as it is, we need to err on the side of safety.”
Last year’s tree felling was done by the Oregon Department of Forestry. The parks district “made lemonade out of lemons” and bought some chainsaws. The Department of Forestry felled the trees and taught a chainsaw safety class as participants bucked up the trees.
“It’s a terrible thing, but teaching a new skill and providing wood for the [Wasco County] wood program, we’re trying to make the best of a bad situation,” Baker said.
The resulting wood was hauled off by Wasco County’s youth services wood program, which takes donated wood and gives it away to low income residents.
This year, the project was too large and a contractor was brought in. Initial bids came in at $100 per tree to fell, but then a local contractor, Erwin Haglund, approached the district and offered to fell the trees in exchange for the trunks, plus he’s paying the district $1,000.
“So we’re essentially selling the bottom portions of the tree, and getting the felling as part of the deal. It’s safer for our staff when the tree is already on the ground. But you know, it’s gonna look worse up there before it looks better,” Baker said.
The contractor will retain the bottom 20-25 feet of each tree, while the Wasco County wood program will take the rest. Many of the trees are at least 60 feet tall, he said.
“This is like a cancer and we’re going to be aggressive about trying to stop the infestation and it’s going to be important to note that we will be carefully inspecting all the fallen trees to make sure we don’t spread larvae. You don’t want to deliver wood around town and propagate the species,” he said.
Hopes are to schedule the Wasco County wood program to come up as frequently as possible to haul off wood.
Depending on its diameter, wood will be either run through a chipper onsite, put on a burn pile or hauled off, Baker said.
The plan first is to remove the infested trees. Then repairs have to be made to the irrigation system to make sure trees have enough water to survive. Finally, “we will be embarking on a major replanting project that will emphasize tree diversity.”
Now there are just two types of tree: oak and pine. If there were 20 species instead, then in the event one species is wiped out by a bug, “we have lots of other trees.”