FirstNet

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in favor of beavers — in 1939

A lawsuit between two landowners

Beaver Dam
Beaver dam. Wyoming Game and Fish Department photo.

When Paul Stewart bought his rangeland in Eastern Oregon in 1884 it included a meadow with “stirrup-high native grasses”. The sub-irrigation provided by Crane Creek was amplified by several families of industrious beavers who had built numerous dams across the stream to form ponds for their homes.

In 1924 he left his farm for a year and upon returning found that poachers had trapped and removed the beavers. The dams had washed out and over the next 12 years the meadow and the creek was transformed. Uncontrolled flood waters eroded the banks, cutting into his valuable crop land. The stream was flowing 15 feet below its original level and the water table had dropped. The meadow was drying up and a well was barely producing any water.

Mr. Stewart arranged for the Oregon State Game Commission to bring him sixteen of nature’s hydraulic engineers — native beavers.

Below is an excerpt from a document written in 1941 by Paul W. Schaffer, the Regional Biologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region.

“The beavers began their reclamation work at once. They erected strong dams almost overnight; they sent huge cottonwoods and aspen crashing into the gully; they built more and more dams.

“When the heavy spring run-off came, water that for the past twelve years had rushed through the stream channel to be lost in the river below was caught behind the beaver dams and stored in large ponds which acted as settling basins for the silt-laden waters. At each flood stage of the stream, inches of soil were added to the bottom of the deepened channel. As the ponds were filled, excess water flowed over well-designed spillways and continued down the stream.”

The average summer streamflow of the preceding twelve years was increased considerably by the water escaping from storage. Water from the ponds percolated into the banks to the adjacent fields. Hay production in the meadows improved. The well again supplied ample stock water. The ugly erosion scar through the meadow was healing.

To make a long story shorter, Mr. Stewart’s downstream neighbor, Lloyd Johnson, urged Mr. Stewart to remove the beaver dams thinking it would improve the condition of his own eroded land. He did not realize that if the dams were blown up that the water would simply flow through his land, unimpeded by any structures, resulting in little if any change in his water table.

Mr. Johnson filed a lawsuit to have the beaver dams removed. He won. The judge ordered Mr. Stewart to within five days ask the State Game Commission to remove the beavers and the dams. He was also ordered to pay a $300 contempt fine and was threatened with three months in jail if he did not comply.

Mr. Stewart appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court which ruled in his favor, writing in part:

“To deny our water users the right to control such streams and prevent the erosion that would soon take place would mean the utter destruction of much of our most valuable lands throughout the state.”

Below is Mr. Schaffer’s nine-page beautifully written and typed description of Mr. Stewart’s experience with the beavers, crafted in 1941. It even includes an epilogue. Notice how both the right and left margins are justified, a long and tedious process when done on a typewriter. (You may also download the document.)

Beaver-On-Trial-by-Paul-Schaffer-1941

 

It would be very interesting to know the present condition of Mr. Stewart’s former property, which he sold shortly after the 1939 court cases.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has a helpful guide to the beaver’s role in riparian habitat management.

In case you missed it, check out our May 5, 2021 article about how beavers can affect wildfires.

If you’re still starving for more information about beavers, Heidi Perryman, Co-Chair of last month’s California Beaver Summit, tells us that their website has information about presentations made at the conference, including the effects on wildfires, managing the challenges beavers can cause for landowners, and the value beaver engineering can have for the drying state of California. She said two of the researchers mentioned in our May 5 article, Dr. Emily Fairfax and Dr. Joe Wheaton, gave keynote talks at the conference. There were also speakers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly for letting us know about this case.

FEMA denied most Oregonians’ requests for wildfire disaster aid

Lower income applicants were about four times more likely to be denied than those with higher incomes

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
Devastation from the Almeda Drive Fire near Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

Jefferson Public Radio has an article by April Ehrlich who reported that after the disastrous wildfires in Oregon in 2020 the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied about 57 percent of the 27,000 applications for federal assistance.

As an example, a woman who had lived in her home since 2012 was denied help because, as the letter from FEMA said, “You are not eligible for housing assistance because you did not prove you lived in the damaged home at the time of the disaster.” The homeowner, Maria Meunier, is one of the 14,000 Oregonians whose applications were not approved, but she is one of only 290 people who appealed the denials. Only 40 of the appeals were approved, but Ms. Meunier’s was not one of them.

Below is an excerpt from the article at Jefferson Public Radio:


Left out
Oregon’s high rates of denial are on par with previous natural disasters. FEMA denied about 60% of Puerto Rican disaster assistance applicants after Hurricane Maria. A study by Texas Hausers, a housing nonprofit, found that FEMA denied a quarter of disaster applicants after Hurricane Harvey hit there.

Many of the people who have been denied assistance are low-income. Among Hurricane Harvey applicants, people whose annual incomes were below $15,000 had a 46% denial rate. People with annual incomes exceeding $70,000 had a 10% denial rate.

JPR has a pending data request with FEMA to obtain income and demographic information about Oregon applicants who were impacted by wildfires in 2020.

Following Oregon’s wildfires, FEMA issued press releases encouraging people to appeal. They said the appeals process could be as simple as correcting a typo or providing a missing document.

Disaster victim advocates and legal aid attorneys say appealing FEMA’s denials is anything but simple; and that by denying so many people the first time, the agency is using a complex bureaucratic process to weed out people who likely need the most help.

“People who’ve been affected by a disaster are dealing with trauma,” said attorney Tracy Figueroa with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. “They’re trying to pull the documents together, and just hearing “no” from one entity or another can shut things down. They don’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy. They’re just done.”

Figueroa and other legal aid attorneys say applicants almost always need an attorney to help them find and deliver documents, provide context for their living situations, and continually follow up with FEMA representatives.

People with limited resources are less likely to have access to a lawyer. Disaster-prone states like Texas, where Figueroa has worked through 18 federal disasters, have teams of legal aid attorneys that help low-income disaster victims. But in states like Oregon, which rarely sees a disaster as destructive as the Almeda Fire, there are few private or nonprofit attorneys who are experienced in FEMA disaster assistance.

FEMA’s denial letters aren’t always clear about how applicants can amend their applications. For example, several Oregon applicants told JPR that they were denied assistance because they have homeowner’s insurance; a common misunderstanding, since FEMA often lists homeowners insurance as a reason for denial. Rather, FEMA can help people with homeowners insurance, but those applicants need to follow a few other steps first. They need to see what their insurance will cover and provide that documentation to FEMA, then they need to apply for a loan through the Small Business Administration, even if they don’t intend to take out a loan. At that point, they could go back to FEMA with an appeal.

Challenges with mobile homes
Jackson County officials say two-thirds of the homes destroyed by the Almeda Fire were manufactured homes. Like Meunier, mobile homeowners face a number of challenges in applying for disaster assistance. They need to provide months-long proof that they paid space rent, a copy of their lease agreement and a title to their home, which isn’t always available because of the generally informal process of buying a mobile home.

“For people who are living in mobile homes, they may not have those title documents,” said Sarah Saadian of the Low Income Housing Coalition. “Even if your state may require you to register it, it just doesn’t happen like that. Sometimes the park owner might have it. Sometimes it’s never delivered when the home is delivered.”

Saadian and the Low Income Housing Coalition are encouraging FEMA and Congress to enact legislation that allows mobile homeowners to self-certify homeownership in lieu of title documents, a process that had been allowed after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. FEMA only allows self-attestation in U.S. territories, not in the states.

Mobile home parks have historically been located in areas that are susceptible to natural disasters, including wildfires and hurricanes.

“They’re in areas where wildfires occur and where flooding can occur because they’re tucked away,” said attorney Ilene Jacobs with the California Rural Legal Assistance. “Some of them are quite substandard and are in areas adjacent to a highway.”

The Almeda Fire burned through the Bear Creek Greenway, a riparian area and bike path running along the Interstate 5 freeway. Several manufactured home parks abutted the greenway and freeway before the fire raged through those properties.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.

Manufactured housing units being built in Oregon as temporary housing for fire victims

Map of fires in northwest Oregon, September 13, 2020 Riverside Beachie Creek Lionshead
Map of fires in northwest Oregon, September 13, 2020, while the fires were still spreading.

FEMA has begun moving Manufactured Housing Units (MHUs) onto a newly constructed site in Mill City, Oregon that will provide temporary housing for qualified wildfire survivors and their families.

Several communities southeast of Salem along Highway 22 suffered severe impacts from the Beachie Creek and Lionshead Fires which grew large during the wind event of September 7 and 8, 2020. Some of the worst hit towns were Mill City and Gates.

Construction on the new Mill City site began earlier this month, with work completed ahead of schedule. The site is currently scheduled to receive 13 manufactured housing units (MHUs) and can accommodate up to 16 MHUs, providing necessary temporary housing for the qualified residents of both Linn and Marion counties.

As soon as all MHU are delivered and placed on site, each unit will be given a final inspection ensuring they are ready for occupancy, and families will be scheduled to move into their temporary homes.

To date, 85 families whose homes were severely damaged or destroyed by this year’s wildfires have been approved for temporary housing units. These units are placed in established RV parks or in FEMA constructed group sites.

In addition to Linn and Marion counties, FEMA’s Direct Housing mission is establishing temporary housing for qualified disaster survivors in Jackson and Lincoln counties in sites like the one in Mill City. Housing units are chosen by FEMA based on the survivor family composition and needs, as well as to ensure that requirements for access or functional needs are met.

Currently, 240 qualified families are scheduled to receive FEMA Direct Temporary Housing in the four counties. The current number of qualified families has fallen as many households that qualified for this assistance have located alternate temporary or permanent housing on their own.

Other programs for fire victims such as rental assistance may be available. Apply online at DisasterAssistance.gov, by downloading the FEMA app, or by calling the disaster assistance helpline at 800-621-3362 from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. PDT, seven days a week.

BLM intends to give grazing permits to members of the Hammond family that served time for arson on public lands

Would grant access to 26,000 acres for $1.35/month per animal

Dwight and Steven Hammond
Booking photos of Dwight and Steven Hammond (Photos: U.S. Department of Justice)

The Bureau of Land Management is proposing to issue four grazing permits to the Oregon-based Hammond Ranch which for 10 years would allow them access to 26,000 acres of taxpayers’ land for $1.35 per animal unit month.

On September 30, 2001 the two Hammonds distributed boxes of matches to everyone in their hunting party with instructions to“light up the whole country on fire”. Initially they ignited fires on their property but the fires spread onto 139 acres of federal land.

Steven Hammond was also convicted of setting a series of fires on August 22, 2006. Those ignitions, during Red Flag Warning conditions, compromised the safety of firefighters who were working on another fire nearby. Some of them were forced to retreat from the area for their own safety. They were given advice and led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack.

The Hammond case inspired the 40-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. Robert LaVoy Finicum, one of the occupiers died, but brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the accused leaders of the occupation, were not convicted.

While the Hammonds were in prison for the arson convictions, President Trump issued them full pardons. For more information about the Hammonds, check out the detailed timeline we put together covering their interactions with the legal system between 1994 and 2015.

Anyone can protest the BLM’s proposed decision by sending a letter, by January 13, 2020, to:

Don Rotell
Field Manager, Andrews/Steens Resource Areas
Burns District BLM
28910 Hwy 20 W.
Hines, OR 97738

Below is a press release from the Western Watersheds Project about the proposed grazing permit.


January 4, 2021

BURNS, Ore.  – In the very last moments of 2020, the Bureau of Land Management issued a proposed decision to award grazing privileges to Hammonds Ranches, Inc., despite the history of abuses of grazing privileges by these public land’s ranchers—including actions leading to arson convictions. The BLM notified interested parties of the decision on New Year’s Day, a federal holiday.

“Giving the permit to the Hammonds shows a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, both by the former permittees and by Secretary Bernhardt, and is clearly a political move rather than a responsible allocation of public lands,” said Erik Molvar, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “There is a documented history of permit violations, criminal convictions, and overgrazing of allotments as recently as 2019.”

The proposed grazing decision was posted late in the day on December 31, 2020, and the online planning site states that the Hammonds Ranches, Inc. “will be apportioned preference due to their extensive historic use of these allotments, past proper use of rangeland resources, a high level of general need, and advantages conferred by topography.” The Hammonds past “proper” use of the allotments has included arson, unauthorized livestock use, overgrazing, and alleged intimidation of federal employees. Just six years ago, the Bureau of Land Management refused to reissue the same permits because, “The Hammonds’ malicious disregard for human life and public property shows contempt for BLM regulation of public lands.”

“It’s reminiscent of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to give the Hammonds permits on his very last day in office on January 2, 2019,” said Sarah McMillan, Conservation Director for WildEarth Guardians. “That decision was unlawful and rightly overturned by the courts. With one foot out the door, the Trump Administration is trying, again, to allow these bad-actor permittees to run roughshod over public lands.”

The groups plan to protest the proposed decision.

Study found hazardous air quality conditions at fire camps in Oregon and California

Smoke exposure levels at the Creek Fire ranged from hazardous to unhealthy for 30 days

(From Bill: Wildland firefighters and people who live in areas where long-term fires are common, such as Northern California and the Northwest, know that smoke can persist for days or weeks and can cause or aggravate respiratory and other medical issues. But knowing it exists and having peer reviewed quantifiable data proving it is hazardous to health, are two different things. Science like this could lead to changes that may benefit firefighters and the general public.)


In September and October the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deployed two staff members to serve as air resource advisors at wildfires in Oregon and California.

Air resource advisors were fully integrated into the wildfire incident management teams to provide insights into understanding and predicting smoke exposure levels. The individuals interacted with stakeholders, including air quality regulators, fire personnel, public health practitioners, and community residents. A primary aspect of this engagement was to forecast smoke levels for areas immediately affected by fires and generate a daily smoke outlook to keep stakeholders informed about prevailing smoke levels. 2020 is the first year during which the CDC worked with the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and deployed staff members as air resource advisors for wildfire incidents.

From August 31 to September 14, 2020, one CDC staff member supported wildfires in central Oregon’s Cascade Range east of Sisters, which included the Beachie Creek, Holiday Farm, Lionshead, and Riverside fires. Strong east winds across the Cascade Mountains resulted in more than 560,000 acres of fire growth from September 7 through 10.

satellite photo fires smoke Washington, Oregon, and California
GOES-17 photo of smoke from wildfires in Washington, Oregon, and California at 5:56 p.m. PDT Sept. 8, 2020. The photo was taken during a very strong wind event.

Another CDC staff member was deployed to the Creek Fire from September 20 to October 5, 2020. This fire near North Fork, California started September 4 and grew to 193,000 acres during its first week; as of December 3, 2020, the fire had burned 379,895 acres.

Air quality study, fire camps, 2020
Abbreviation: PM2.5 = particles with aerodynamic diameters ≤2.5 μm.
       * Sensitive groups include persons aged ≤18 years; adults aged ≥65 years; pregnant women; persons with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes; outdoor workers; persons experiencing homelessness, and those with limited access to medical care. (https://www.cdc.gov/air/wildfire-smoke/default.htm).
       † Fire camps typically offer logistical support to the wildfire suppression operation by providing firefighters and incident personnel sleeping locations (camping), morning and evening meals, workspaces, and administrative services.
       § The monitoring instrument in North Fork, California, recorded errors and did not report data during September 12–15, 2020.
       ¶ Start date of Creek Fire in California was September 4. Start dates of fires in Oregon were as follows. Lionshead was August 16; Beachie Creek was August 16; Holiday Farm was September 7; Riverside was September 8.

During these two deployments, several public health concerns came to light. Of note, although smoke from wildfires drifted long distances and affected downwind communities, the brunt of poor air quality was observed in communities adjacent to wildfire incidents. For example, communities near the fires in California and Oregon experienced high concentrations of PM2.5, as measured by air quality monitors, resulting in “Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” conditions, as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index.

Fire personnel who camped and rested between work shifts at nearby fire camps (North Fork, California and Sisters, Oregon) were also exposed to poor air quality levels. These fire camp exposures contribute to higher overall cumulative smoke exposure and, along with other occupational risk factors such as fatigue and stress, could limit recovery that is much needed for fire personnel while away from the active fire perimeter. In addition, environmental hazards such as extreme heat and higher concentrations of ambient carbon monoxide were prevalent during days with heavy smoke and after extreme fire growth days. These hazards added a layer of complexity to fire response efforts and might have limited fire personnel recovery between work shifts.


From: Navarro K, Vaidyanathan A.  — Notes from the Field: Understanding Smoke Exposure in Communities and Fire Camps Affected by Wildfires— California and Oregon, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1873–1875. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6949a4

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob.

Photos of lookout tree on Ochoco National Forest in Oregon

Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp

Steve Stenkamp sent us photos of another lookout tree in Oregon. This one is on the Ochoco National Forest between Bend and John Day. Previously he documented one on the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

Years ago, in order to detect new ignitions of wildfires, land management agencies occasionally took advantage of tall trees on hilltops, building platforms near the top with ladders or other climbing aids below.

Mr. Stenkamp used his Phantom 3 Pro drone to get these photos.

Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp.

“The unique feature is the ‘resting platform’ about 30 feet up,” Mr. Stenkamp said. “The ground cabin was moved to the Ochoco Guard Station when the lookout went out of service.”

Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp
Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Resting platform on the Black Mountain Lookout Tree, Steve Stenkamp
Black Mountain Lookout Tree
Black Mountain Lookout Tree, USFS archives.