Officials Weigh Liability in Root Rot Dilemma

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June 20, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

The Washington State Parks Department has a dilemma on its hands at Kopachuck. And there are no easy answers.

An arbor crew for the Department of Natural Resources conducted a study on the trees at the state campground to check for laminated root rot and found about 80% of the Douglas firs were affected by the disease, The Olympian, Olympia, Wash., reported.

In response to the potential danger, the campground is closed indefinitely.

The day-use area, beach area and group campground remain open.

“It was a discouraging moment when we looked and saw the extent of the damage,” said Steve Brand, southwest region director for the State Parks and Recreation Commission. “When we learned the magnitude of this, it was more risk than we could accept.”

Brand and other park officials, at the suggestion of the Preserve Our Parks organization, led a public tour of the campground June 10.

“We wanted to show people what laminated root rot looks like,” Park Manager Tom Pew said. “We were noticing dead and dying trees. Last summer, two trees failed in Lake Wenatchee during a busy camping season.”

“Failed” meant the giant trees simply toppled over. The Lake Wenatchee incident sparked the investigation of large conifers at other state parks, including Kopachuck.

Root rot is a naturally occurring pathogen that attacks trees at their base and compromises its root system. Trees can fight the disease for years before they give up, Pew said.

“The problem is, you might not see signs of the disease until the tree fails,” Pew said.

When an affected tree falls, the pathogen is broken and doesn’t spread to other trees. That’s how trees fight the spread of the disease in a naturally occurring forest, Pew said.

That’s one option the Parks Department has – to leave the trees alone and let nature heal itself. But that would involve closing the campground for an extended period of time, perhaps years.

“In an area where they spend the night and are staying for an extended period of time, the risk is much greater,” Brand said.

State Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, expressed concern that keeping the campground closed – the money-making portion of the park – could place the park in jeopardy of being closed altogether with the state’s next round of budget cuts.

“We fought to keep this park open,” she said. “We tried to keep the parks open that were revenue-generating. This makes it more vulnerable to closure altogether.”

The Parks Department’s other option is to remove the affected trees and reopen the campground.

“We can retreat from the campground and manage it as a natural forest, or move forward and take out the trees that are susceptible,” Brand said.

The timber revenue would be funneled back into the parks system, but Brand said the parks and recreation commission isn’t eyeing the lumber as a money-maker. The long-term effects of logging would be far greater than a short-term monetary gain, he said.

“We can spend the money rehabilitating the area and direct the funds toward other forest health programs,” he said. “But the stands don’t have to be marketable. We’re not trying to look at trees for revenue – that would be a little short-sighted. Right now, we’re just trying to protect people.”

Even logging the area carries a risk. Kopachuck State Park has bark beetles, which generally feed on dying wood and leave healthy trees alone, except in cases of extreme infestation.

“If we cut the trees, the bark beetle infestation will go sky high,” said Robert Fimbee, chief of resources stewardship for the parks. “They can detect stress, and newly cut wood is a banquet for them. The population can overwhelm healthy trees and will spread to other neighborhoods.

“They don’t discriminate. They won’t stay within the park’s boundaries.”

Local resident John Filson offered a simple solution: Open the campground, inform the campers of the problem, and let them weigh the risks associated with enjoying the campground themselves.

Brand said there has been just one fatality at a state park in the past 100 years, when a woman was killed by a falling tree at Lake Wenatchee.

Filson argued that one incident during a 100-year period is a rare occurrence and shouldn’t warrant a closure at Kopachuck. He said the Parks Department is placing too much emphasis on liability issues.

Brand said if someone gets hurt on state parks land and sues the state, the taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

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