In Our View: Improving the Forest

County officials keep plugging away on Camp Bonneville project

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Good news about Camp Bonneville: Clark County officials are getting more aggressive on two fronts. They’re moving toward cleaning up portions of the former artillery range, so it can be turned into a regional park, plus improving forest health in other portions of the 3,280-acre site.But here’s the frustrating news about Camp Bonneville: Local residents are still several years away from noticing any meaningful progress toward public use of the pastoral property in east county.

We’ll take the good news whenever we can get it. And as for frustrating news about Camp Bonneville, we’re used to it. Ever since the Army stopped using the artillery range in 1995, this story has featured all the twists and turns of a soap opera, only without all the steamy romance, shameless betrayals and emotional outbursts.

The latest encouraging development came this past week when county commissioners awarded a $7.6 million contract to a new firm -- Weston Solutions Inc. -- to resume cleaning up the camp. The work includes finding and removing unexploded ordnance left from 86 years of artillery training. The new contractor is based in Pennsylvania and has an office in Seattle. The Army is paying for the project.

That’s gratifying news for local residents, but we’ve seen contracts and contractors come and go as the untelevised soap opera has unfolded. In 2006, the Army provided $28.6 million under a fixed-price contract, then the Army got crossways with the contractor, and most of the money has been spent. Seven of nine firing ranges have been cleaned up, but the work is much more elaborate than anticipated, with subsurface munitions more pervasive than at first believed, including lead contaminants 4 feet underground in some places.

Here’s hoping Weston Solutions can bring a new perspective and will benefit from other companies’ stop-start efforts of the past.

Making the project even more complicated is the multijurisdictional nature of the endeavor, with the company working with the county, the Army and the state Department of Ecology.

As for improving the health of the forest, kudos to county officials who have recommended a plan to selectively thin overcrowded forests at Camp Bonneville. This would reduce fire danger and generate revenue from the harvested wood. Some bids are coming in between $400,000 and $500,000 in profits for the county. The revenue from the timber harvests would be dedicated to associated costs at the site, including road and bridge projects and enhanced vegetation. All timber harvesting would be for thinning; no clear-cutting is in the plans.

If the forests are not thinned, the wood will lose value and, in 10 years, could be sold only as firewood.

But for residents of nearby Proebstel, the key benefit would be reducing fire danger. Numerous fires, such as the 230,000-acre, three-county Yacolt Burn in 1902, have been fueled by dense forests in need of thinning.

The dream of turning Camp Bonneville into a public-use area remains in the distant future, but we commend county officials for pressing forward on this massive undertaking.