Economy | Environment | Local | Mt. Hood Inc

And Just What Products Does This Mt. Hood Inc. Produce?

OPB | June 14, 2011 11 p.m. | Updated: March 12, 2013 3:49 p.m. | Mt. Hood, OR

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The Portland region ships out computer chips, solar panels, and of course, plenty of beer and wine.

Mt. Hood Inc.

Mt. Hood isn’t a company. But for decades, the mountain has boosted the region’s economy with its two main assets: water and wood.

And an emerging asset, carbon storage, offers interesting possibilities.

In this story in our series about the mountain’s economic impact Rob Manning reports on the mountain’s products.

 

A bearded logger in an orange vest is darting around in the shadow of towering piles of 36-foot-long logs.

He’s got a little hammer in one hand, and a paintbrush in the other.

Rob Manning / OPB

Dave Horrax: “This guy here is branding logs. We have to paint them with yellow paint. Yellow paint means it’s non-exportable log. You can’t export a log off a state or federal ground.”

Logging industry forester, Dave Horrax remembers the 1980’s when every year, trucks hauled out enough logs to build 40,000 homes.

Mt. Hood’s harvest is barely a tenth of that now.

Horrax says the market has gotten so tight it’s hard to find trucks to haul out the logs.

Dave Horrax: “The Chinese are buying a lot of logs and a lot of people have gone out of the logging business, just because of the ups and downs. There’s just a shortage of trucks – and whoever pays the most money is going to get the trucks.”

Rob Manning / OPB

Horrax says tougher environmental rules protecting old-growth forests have changed what’s being cut.

Dave Horrax: “And it’s all the younger, thinning wood.” 

Horrax works for Columbia Helicopters.

The Forest Service relies on helicopters to haul logs from remote areas, to avoid the environmental damage from building roads.

Horrax says the aircraft burn about 165 gallons of fuel an hour.

Rob Manning: “So what does that cost a gallon?”

Dave Horrax: “We buy it in bulk. Right now, I think it’s about $3.68 a gallon.”

So the costs for things like fuel are rising.

And the prices for logs have fallen. 

The result is that timber revenue has plummeted from $35 million, 25 years ago, to just over $1 million, last year.

But that mountain — or as we’re referring to it in this series, Mt. Hood Inc. — has a diverse business model, and another product.

It also has water.

All winter long, Mt. Hood Inc. stockpiles water – in huge snowdrifts and deep mountain lakes.

Rob Manning / OPB
David Schaff is the director of the Portland Water Bureau.

More than a quarter of Oregon’s population drinks water from the forest.

Most water consumers are in and around Portland.

David Shaff: “I’m David Shaff, I’m the director of the Portland Water Bureau and we’re out on the top of Powell Butte.”

By the time water leaves Powell Butte’s 50-million gallon tank and reaches Portland-area faucets, it’s been treated with a little chlorine and ammonia, but not much else.

Rob Manning / OPB
Dave Horrax points out across the timbered hillsides of Mt. Hood National Forest.

David Shaff: “We have a giant filter, we have one of the world’s largest filtration systems, naturally, up in the Bull Run.”

So, what’s the value of the filtering work done by the forest’s undisturbed soil, shade and ecosystem?

David Shaff: “I think it is intuitive that our system is cheaper than a system in a comparably sized city that was using, for instance, a river.”

Intuitive? Okay. But what is it worth?

David Shaff: “I don’t think we’ve ever tried to quantify it.”

Several municipal water studies say that forests should be valued for the avoided cost of treatment plants.

In other words, the value of what the natural forest filtration system saves ratepayers.

ECO Northwest led one study that put the value at $20 to $40 per person.

For Mt. Hood, that would total up to $36 million.

But, the feds have been pushing Portland to build a plant, which could cost far more.

Portland gets one other substantial benefit from Bull Run.

The water flows downhill, without any mechanical help.

David Shaff: “I budget about a million dollars to pump about four billion gallons of groundwater if I need it, over the course of a year. Well, we use 36 billion gallons of water a year – so if I had to pump all 36 billion gallons of water, our rates would be much higher.”

By Shaff’s numbers, gravity saves the Water Bureau $8 million a year.

Conservationists argue all those numbers understate the watershed’s true value.

And, it doesn’t even include the value to other water users — like farmers — or water-dependent products, like mountain huckleberries and mushrooms.

But there is arguably a product that is even more valuable than timber or water.

It’s invisible.

I went looking for it with Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild, and Steve Dettman, with Ecotrust.

To find it, we went to a computer.

I’m looking over Fernandez’ shoulder as he scrolls through maps.

He’s looking for carbon – the element at the heart of climate change.

The mountain stores loads of it.

Erik Fernandez: “I think for purposes of looking at carbon, this is probably the best one to go with. It covers the whole national forest.

Steve Dettman: “It’s really recent, too, right? It just came out?”

Fernandez uses Forest Service data to determine where the oldest trees are — because that’s where the Mt. Hood forest is storing the most carbon.

Erik Fernandez: “So, from that 130 million tons of carbon, where it gets tricky is how much do you value a ton of carbon at.”

Fernandez has to multiply for a carbon dioxide equivalent.

When he converts to dollars, the numbers get so big, he’s reminded of the comic villain from the Austin Powers’ movies.

Erik Fernandez: “I’m thinking Doctor Evil….”

Dr. Evil (Mike Meyers): “100 billion dollars!”

Erik Fernandez: “$19 billion of carbon stored on the Mt. Hood National Forest.”

Whether it’s $100 billion, $19 billion or less, is academic.

Ecotrust’s Steve Dettman says no one is paying for what’s already stored in the forest.

The markets only pay for improvements to carbon storage.

Steve Dettman: “In order to get credits, you’d have to say ‘Well, I’m going to do a change in management’ and that’s going to store some number of tons more than the current management.  And so, that difference is really what you’re getting credit for.”

Dettman and Fernandez say there are ways that Mt. Hood could change management to store more carbon.

But they’d have to convince the closest thing to a Mt. Hood board of directors — the Forest Service.

Back at the timber sale on Mt. Hood, Forest Service ecologist, Tom DeMeo says his agency isn’t looking to sell carbon credits.

Tom DeMeo: “My understanding is that it’s not on the table at this time. There would be some wariness about the federal government lands being involved in that for a whole set of reasons. I don’t see that happening.”

In the end, selling carbon credits is a lot more complicated than selling wood or water.

Carbon can’t be sold off.

It’s a totally local asset.

And like the mountain itself, it’s hard to say what that’s worth.

 

Next  in our series Mt. Hood Inc. we’ll learn about what it costs to keep people coming to the mountain.

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