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Group wants Clackamas County to better protect trees

The nonprofit Urban Green is proposing a tree conservation ordinance that would regulate small clear cuts
by: Bob Murch, A heron perches on a branch as nearby trees, which Urban Green says held 23 heron nests, are cut down in the River Forest Road area.

One morning in 2005, the residents near River Forest Road in Oak Grove woke up to find that nearly 200 'old-growth and second-growth Douglas fir trees were being cut down,' said Chips Janger, who lives near the former forested site.

'That was bad enough, but the heron rookery, which neighbors had celebrated for years,' was also being destroyed he said, noting that there were 23 heron nests in the trees, and one osprey nest.

'The neighbors were incensed - enraged. So Bob Murch [a neighborhood resident] went to the county, but the response from the county was this: 'We understand - but there's nothing we can do,'' Janger said.

What occupies that land now? 'Four large, closely packed, empty and unsold houses. And they haven't planted trees,' Janger said.

'A huge loophole'

'The bottom line - if a person buys a piece of land in Clackamas County that is not next to a river or streambed, [he] can come in and do anything he wants, and the county can't stop him. There is no law to prevent anyone from clear-cutting any area,' he added.

When a person applies for a building permit or a zoning change, at that point the county can step in, he noted, but if someone buys land, he can cut down everything legally.

'This is a huge loophole - that is what we want to deal with,' Janger said.

And he is not alone. Janger and six other local citizens have come together to form Urban Green, and they have put together a proposal for a county tree ordinance which they will present to the Board of County Commissioners business meeting set for tomorrow, Jan. 17, at 10 a.m. in the BCC Hearing Room in Oregon City's Public Services Building on Kaen Road.

Susan Shawn and Ed Riddle, two other members of Urban Green, figure they have more than 3,000 people who support the concept of a tree conservation ordinance for the unincorporated area of Clackamas County.

The support comes from individuals, but also from organizations like the Audubon Society of Portland, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, various watershed councils and seven local CPO's, Shawn noted.

One of the reasons for such an outpouring of support for a tree ordinance, Riddle said, is 'almost everybody we talked to has had something similar [to the tree removal in Oak Grove] happen in their neighborhood.'

In fact, the meadow behind Riddle's own home has been transformed into a 'flattened space with no natural features and no character. They brought in a giant machine that has a 'hand' that reaches around trees and rips them out,' he said.

Tree ordinance not a new idea

Janger wants people to know that Urban Green organizers are not 'against the concept of development.'

He added, 'Everybody's keenly aware of development; everybody's also keenly aware that development can be done well. It can be done smartly.'

He wants to emphasize the fact that Urban Green is a group of citizens in Clackamas County who are concerned about the disappearance of the 'urban canopy' and the wildlife associated with natural areas.

Shawn noted that a tree ordinance is not a new idea, but in fact has been on the county's agenda for years.

'In 2001, [County Commissioner Bill] Kennemer [initiated] a public process called Complete Communities to put together a tree conservation ordinance for urban areas in Clackamas County.

'In 2002, a 15-member environmental work group met 19 times and they came up with a list of guidelines that included a tree ordinance that was presented to the board of county commissioners,' Shawn said.

Although no ordinance was enacted at that time, Shawn said that Urban Green leaders 'took that work for the basis of our proposed tree ordinance.'

She added, 'We researched tree ordinances all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond and drafted the best ordinance for our area. In addition, we are also proposing that the county appoint a 15-person taskforce to oversee the public process, whereby the ordinance and language get revised and eventually referred back to the BCC for a final vote.'

The hope is that at the time of the final vote, that the taskforce 'morphs into an urban forestry commission, so there will be a concerned citizen partnership to implement this ordinance,' Shawn said.

She was quick to point out that the Urban Green proposed ordinance is 'not as strict as the one in Lake Oswego, and does not apply to single-family dwellings and land that cannot be further subdivided.'

Riddle added, 'We know there will be trees cut, but our main concern is that it be intelligently done and as many trees be conserved as possible.'

'We think the county representatives see a problem and are looking for a solution. We're offering them what we think is a well-thought out solution,' Janger said.

Presentation on Jan. 17

'We have engendered a huge amount of support from coalition organizations throughout the county, as well as from businesses and several thousand citizens. There are more every day - people are e-mailing us, it is growing like a prairie fire,' Janger added.

The three hope for support from citizens at the Jan. 17 BCC meeting in Oregon City.

'People should support us only if they see the same problem we see - without a great deal of support it won't happen. [We need] a significant amount of support from citizens in the county who don't want to see the tree canopy disappear. They need to be there on the 17th,' Janger said.

After the business meeting, Riddle noted, 'A series of people will make our case to explain what we are trying to do - to show that we're doing this in a credible way, an inexpensive way for the county to support a tree ordinance. We've really thought it through.'

Shawn expects the tree-ordinance process to take no longer than six months, and said, 'When this ordinance passes, it will be a model for the Pacific Northwest, for counties. We see this as one of the underpinnings for Metro's Nature in the Neighborhood ordinances, that the county has to pass in 2008, and we are passionate to support the county's new direction for sustainability.'

Trees are important

'We are really excited for this taskforce to provide long-term management of this incredible thing. [It's a gift] to live in the midst of wonderful living creatures that we take for granted - but if we continue to take them for granted they will be gone,' Janger said.

Riddle said that people should go to Urban Green's Web site to check out a 'whole list of benefits' of having trees in the area.

'They improve the quality of oxygen, they ameliorate the warming effects of asphalt - it's one thing after another,' he noted.

Riddle added, 'Trees, birds and wildlife are part of the web of life - people are not separate from nature.

'Once you put your attention on a natural creature, you feel the magic of life, and it opens you to a whole other level. Anybody who has any sensitivity for nature, instinctively know what we're trying to do. Cut down trees - there will be no creatures.'