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City assesses unauthorized tree removal, ditch-digging in park

Concerns about environmental impact raised

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A large drainage ditch was dug in the north end of McCormick Park in January without permission from the city. On Tuesday, March 29, Public Works Department staff Neal Sheppeard and Thad Houk, City Planner Jacob Graichen and City Councilor Doug Morten visited the site to assess the damage.An unauthorized ditch and tree removal in McCormick Park has some St. Helens residents concerned about its effect on the area’s environment.

On Tuesday morning, March 29, a group of St. Helens city staff assessed the damage from an unauthorized tree removal and ditch-digging effort in the far north end of the St. Helens disc golf course inside McCormick Park.

The damage was done in January, but wasn’t inspected until recently due to rainy weather conditions, said Neal Sheppeard, operations director for the city’s Public Works Department.

Several people who regularly play disc golf on the course asked the Public Works Department to remove several downed trees by the number 12 hole on the course in the park’s northwest corner. After record rainfalls and flooding were recorded in December, the department had removed several downed trees that posed immediate safety threats or had fallen into residents’ backyards.

Sheppeard told the group that park maintenance would have to wait for drier weather in the spring. Soft, wet ground can be easily damaged in the wintertime when heavy machinery is driven over it, he said.

A few weeks later, however, Sheppeard was notified that someone had driven into the park, taken out trees and dug a drainage ditch to alleviate flooding on the course.

The work was unauthorized and not properly done, he explained.

Jared Fischer, the original designer of the disc golf course, said he didn’t know people had gone onto the course without notifying the city until after it happened. He explained that the players who help maintain the course do so on a volunteer basis and were likely trying to do a good thing.

“They just didn’t understand that when you work on projects that involved other entities, you have to be aware of the implications that those have,” Fischer said.

Howard Blumenthal, a St. Helens resident and a steward of Nob Hill Nature Park, said the bigger concern is not how the ditch will be repaired, but rather what long-lasting environmental impacts it will have on the park’s vegetation.

When native plants and vegetation are removed, it creates a vacuum for invasive plant species to take over, Blumenthal explained. Clearing out trees, shrubs, low-lying plants and ground vegetation to accommodate the disc golf course is a concern, he said, as it leaves large swaths of open space where plants once grew.

“I’m not against the disc golf course, but I’m also for the environment,” Blumenthal said.

McCormick Park is not designated by the city as a nature park, meaning is it not regulated by specific preservation guidelines.

Trail maintenance, plant clearing and use of the park for recreational purposes are not restricted by the park’s designation as a regional park.

Sheppeard said he is concerned about the ditch-digging and tree removal issue for two reasons: The group did not properly communicate with the city about its plans, and it’s not the first time volunteers have conducted unauthorized work in the park. During course construction in 2013, fill material was added to the park’s wetland area, which caused problems with the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies, St. Helens City Planner Jacob Graichen explained. The issue was rectified shortly after with the help of the individuals involved, Graichen and Sheppeard said.

City officials don’t intend to issue a citation against the individuals who dug the ditch because the work was not done maliciously, Sheppeard said.

“Obviously, if someone did something more damaging, we’d have them cited,” Sheppeard said. “These guys weren’t intentionally damaging it.”

City officials will inspect the area again in summer when the land is drier, Sheppeard said, to determine if a drainage ditch does need to be properly installed in the area.