CAMAS — Ten miles outside of Camas, nestled within two watersheds that provide the city with part of its drinking water, stands of Douglas fir trees rise to the heavens.
Located within the Boulder Creek and Jones Creek watersheds near the southwest corner of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the decades-old evergreens are gnarled, moss-covered, sparsely needled, stretching above the prickly brambles of unkempt underbrush. The forest is, in places, lush and verdant, but it's not without its share of snags, too.
Decades of status-quo management have resulted in a number of concerns for Camas. So the city now looks to better manage the forest -- and make some money doing so.
Because it's been left to grow unabated, city officials say, the forest is little more than a tinderbox under a magnifying glass, waiting to catch fire during the hot summer months.
It's also like an unchecked stock portfolio that could lose value if it's not tapped. The city says harvesting the forest's timber could pay dividends in the long run. City consultants estimate the net value of timber in the forest is $8.9 million over 50 years.
This summer, Camas will begin harvesting portions of the 1,700 acres of timberland it's owned for decades. As it does so, the city will take a first, cautious step into the realm of selling timber on the domestic market, at a time when every penny matters for municipalities.
The tentative plan calls for foresters to clear-cut part of a 35-acre swatch of timberland below the city's two seasonal water intake facilities at Boulder Creek and Jones Creek. Together, they help provide the city's drinking water during the city's lower-use months. Wells provide water during the rest of the year.
Mayor Scott Higgins said he was reluctant to make any promises about how much money the harvest could generate or what it would be used for.
"We don't know what this will mean for us yet," Higgins said, "but we're not banking on timber harvests to add X-number of employees, or anything like that."
However, Camas' early estimates indicate the city could make between $200,000 and $300,000 next year from timber sales. Last week, the city council approved a $49,000 contract with AKS Engineering & Forestry to survey the land and to oversee the marketing of the city's harvested timber.
While timber values can fluctuate, log prices have shown signs of increasing sharply, according to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, which manages forest practices.
That's come as a surprise to the city.
"I don't think anyone knew what the value of the forest was," said Mike Stevens, the city's water services supervisor, "and I think it was rather alarming news."
Alarming, he acknowledges, in a good way.
Still, there's a caveat. There's still a relatively low demand for timber domestically, which is where the city will be required to sell its logs.
Stevens said foresters will cut trees located below the city's water intake areas because those areas will be easier for loggers to access and because work there will likely result in little disturbance to the creeks.
On top of providing Camas with another source of revenue, timber harvesting will also remove fire hazards from the forest, Stevens said.
The city is completing permitting requirements with the Department of Natural Resources, Public Works Director Eric Levison said.
Money Camas makes from the timber sale will go to the city's water utilities, he said.
But the city has not earmarked the money, nor will it immediately go toward reducing water utility rates.
"It will go into the reserve account," Levison said. "It will be used within the context of the water utility plan."
There's a host of infrastructure projects that need to be updated, Levison said, such as old water lines that need replacing.
Protect water quality
Camas has been sitting on its forest for decades.
But how the city moves forward with its timber harvesting will depend on a variety of factors, including the city's far-reaching goals and where the timber is located, Stevens said.
Specifically, areas that drain into the city's water intake areas at Boulder and Jones creeks will be managed differently than areas that are downstream, the city says.
From Nov. 1 through May 15, the city pumps approximately 2 million gallons a day from the watershed. The city plans to protect that area.
Consultants with AKS Engineering & Forestry say they can generate income from the sale of wood products without sacrificing water quality by periodically harvesting small areas, spread throughout the watershed, and by protecting streams and other sensitive areas.
They also say the city can create an efficient road network within the watershed without sacrificing water quality by avoiding significant stream crossings.
But it will come at a cost.
A forest management report compiled by the city's consultants says a bridge crossing Boulder and Jones creeks will be required, at an overall cost of $200,000.
Although the city plans to clear-cut the first phase of its timber harvest, future logging operations may be done by thinning.
The city plans to reforest the harvested areas, officials say, with AKS Engineering & Forestry recommending the city replant between 300 to 400 trees per acre -- well above the state's requirement of 190 trees per acre.