An independent arborist hired to review Oregon’s post-wildfire roadside tree removal has concluded that contrary to what critics have charged, 99% of the trees being tagged for removal are dead or in poor condition.
The report, made public Monday, was ordered in response to alarms raised by state lawmakers, local residents and whistleblowers who had been hired through the state-run program to mark trees in wildfire burns that should be removed because they posed a hazard.
Critics accused the program of flagging healthy trees incorrectly as hazardous ones that should be cut down, following last fall’s wildfires. They also said the program was being mismanaged and operating without sufficient transparency.
Following a legislative oversight hearing that amplified such concerns, the Oregon Department of Transportation hired an independent arborist to review the state’s post-wildfire hazard tree removal process.
The arborist, Galen Wright, is the president of Washington Forestry Consultants and has more than 30 years of experience in the industry. Wright completed a thorough review and evaluation of the state’s project and completed a detailed assessment of 2,214 sample trees, following a nearly three-week review process.
Wright found, “ODOT has the necessary operational plan, protocols, contracts, and requirements necessary to conduct the assessment operations and provide quality assurance to this hazard tree mitigation program for the 2020 Oregon wildfires.”
Wright reviewed the qualifications of 1,200 crew members and more than 40 arborists hired by ODOT, who have both worked or are currently working on the project since December 2020. He found 98% had the qualifications to do the work. Only one arborist was found to not fully meet qualifications due to the entry-level status.
The report also acknowledges 96% of trees were correctly marked, and 99% of trees already marked are dead or in poor condition.
“In response to some of the other trees in that small 4% window, he found that some trees that were not marked probably should have been or could have been,” ODOT Strategic Communications Director Tony Andersen said.
Anderson also said another smaller percentage of those trees that were marked for removal should have not been marked as they were “probably right on the cusp of that size diameter that’s on our criteria.” He said that going forward they could be left standing.
“We acknowledge that this is a complex and unprecedented effort with many different opinions and approaches, and we stood ready to implement any potential recommendations resulting from this report,” said Mac Lynde, deputy administrator for delivery and operations at ODOT and the head of the three-agency Debris Management Task Force. “Mr. Wright’s objective and independent findings provide a concrete direction that benefits all Oregonians and reinforces the adaptive nature of this emergency response operation.
But the report leaves a lot of answered questions, said Eric Phillips, a field monitor for CDR Maguire who reported his concerns about his experience marking trees without any arborist qualifications.
Phillips said the report focused on the process of the project and not what is going on in the field.
“The report doesn’t address the flaws, the live trees that are still tagged,” he said. “I would question the independent contractor and find out where did he actually go out in the field and look at some of the trees that were tagged.”
Phillips also said he would challenge the evaluation of the credentials of the arborists and foresters as this was one of the concerns he brought up to lawmakers during a special hearing in April, where he saw 40 people marking trees and only a few arborists on site.
So far, the state estimates there are 140,000 fire-damaged trees, and that more than half have been assessed and marked and 40,000 have been cut down so far.