Gifford Pinchot Task Force leads forest-friendly initiatives

At the forefront is controversial Ascot drilling proposal and widespread kids programming

Heavy equipment in the Gifford Pinchot

submitted photo

The Gifford Pinchot Task Force, which opened a new office in Clark County this year, is at the forefront of the controversial Ascot drilling proposal, among other forest-friendly and conservation initiatives.

At press time, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was about to issue its final ruling on proposed exploratory drilling for gold, silver, copper and molybdenum on a parcel of land adjacent to the Mt. St. Helens National Monument and within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Although he was somewhat reluctant to discuss the drilling project, Garth Smelser, deputy forest supervisor for the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, said that after the BLM ruling is released, forest officials will decide whether or not to issue a “letter of consent.” Go-ahead from both entities is required for the drilling to proceed.

Protecting the forest

Jessica Walz Schafer, conservation director for the nonprofit environmental task force, said the drilling proposal by Canadian mining company Ascot Resources Ltd. has stirred controversy among local citizens, the BLM and the forest service.

“This area has always been a valuable place for recreation and wildlife,” said Schafer. “It’s a special place, and should be set aside.”

Although the permit under consideration is for experimental drilling only – not for an actual mine, which would be subject to a separate permitting process – opponents still fear damage to natural resources, especially the Green River watershed. According to Schafer, the Green River, which feeds into the Cowlitz River, is less than a mile from the proposed drilling site.

“Drilling and mining uses a lot of water,” said Schafer, “and there has been no assessment of where the water is coming from.” Ascot’s proposal states that they could use up to 5,000 gallons of water per day during the drilling process.

 

Also, said Schafer, the Task Force and other opponents are considering the potential negative impacts drilling would have on wildlife and recreation. For example, the noise could disrupt wildlife, and popular recreation sites such as Ryan Lake and Goat Mountain Horse camp would probably be off-limits to the public during the drilling process.

Ascot has stated that, if they complete the drilling and then get approval to open a mine on the site (which could take several years to achieve, including Ascot’s analysis of the drilling results and the permitting process), the mine has the potential to create 2,000 direct jobs and 4,000 indirect jobs. But Schafer said that in the company’s previous round of experimental drilling in 2010, only one person was hired locally.

“They haven’t really proven they are going to produce jobs for locals,” said Schafer. “A lot of mining and drilling operations are highly technical and require skilled labor.”

Bob Dingethal, executive director of the Gifford Pinchot Task Force, said, “It’s a very vague and minimal number of jobs, and creating an environment disaster.”

Schafer said that the Task Force is investigating a different approach to periodic law suits and appeals, “so we don’t have to keep dealing with this particular issue time and time again.” She alluded to “a better solution, where that land will be permanently protected.”

Reopening High Lakes

Overall, the Task Force works on conservation and restoration projects, as well as policies that protect and restore Northwest public lands. The new office, said Dingethal, will help foster such initiatives by enabling the Task Force to more easily meet with its constituents and to work with other organizations to become an environmental hub for Southwest Washington.

“I felt we needed to be closer to the people we serve,” said Dingethal.

Another initiative spearheaded by the Task Force is to reopen several lakes in the Mt. St. Helens blast area to the public. The Forest Service and several groups have banded together as the Mount St. Helens High Lakes Coalition, and are working on funding to purchase at least some of the lakes in the high country north of Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. Much of the area, which was popular for hunting and fishing, was sold by Weyerhaeuser in 2007 to a private party, and the area is now closed to public access. The Coalition fears development of the area, and wants to buy the land – but it could take years to raise the money and develop a management plan in partnership with the forest service.

Schafer referred to the High Lakes area as a “recreation jewel,” and has been lobbying Skamania and Cowlitz County officials to support the Coalition’s efforts.

Addressing ‘nature deficit disorder’

One initiative with widespread support is their goal of increasing children’s exposure to the outdoors. Dingethal and Smelser find working with kids a “unifying project” that the two organizations can work together on.

The project had its beginnings last year, when the Task Force brought a group of school children to the Forest to set motion-detecting cameras, as part of the Cascade Carnivore Project. When the kids saw the pictures the cameras had taken, especially of a bobcat, “they were so excited,” said Dingethal.

Now he and Smelser are “trying to elevate the community dialogue” by bringing a diverse set of groups together – including health care, child advocacy, school districts, civic and environmental organizations, faith-based groups and businesses.

From last year’s single group of kids, said Dingethal, they are hoping to expand to multiple schools, focusing on low-income children and those who might not normally have the opportunity to get out into nature.

Smelser said that the average American youth spends eight hours in front of a screen (TV, computer, or cell phone), and that most suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Exposure to nature, he said, can lead to better physical condition, as well as better academic and social performance.

“We get the sense that the broader community doesn’t understand the scope of the problem and the benefits that a connection with the outdoors can bring,” said Smelser. “You can’t expect kids to take care of the environment if they don’t love it first.”


Gifford Pinchot Task Force

9106E N.E. Highway 99, Vancouver

360-597-4271
 

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