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Unnatural corridor

Fresh snow cloaks the old Douglas fir trees and blankets the forest floor, revealing the tracks of all sorts of critters that cross the Pacific Crest Trail.

The telltale hind legs of a hare and the distinct prints of a fox and all sorts of other animals dot Oregon's most famous mountain footpath in the High Cascades near the Jackson/Klamath county line.

Off the path sits another marker: a blue surveyor's flag tied to a snag, revealing a different kind of footprint. It marks where the proposed 232-mile liquefied natural gas pipeline would cross the PCT.

It's a 50-foot-wide swath that hiker Lesley Adams of Talent considers a travesty to this chunk of forest and the animals that live here.

"Having a pipeline through here would be devastating to high-quality habitat," says Adams, who is the western regional coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance. "These are public lands. Why should the U.S. public take the hit for a foreign country to make money supplying natural gas to Asia?

"We have enough stress on our wildlife," she says.

The PCT crossing represents a snapshot in a large collage of impacts the pipeline would have on landscape and wildlife if approved. The pipeline would cut through roughly 56 miles of Jackson County on its route from Malin to Coos Bay.

The pipeline construction and eventual 50-foot, permanently maintained easement would act as a new land bridge through some of Jackson County's remote forestlands, including old black oak stands, vernal pools, big-game habitat and unroaded, old-growth forest areas, according to a draft environmental impact statement created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as it considers whether to approve the project.

Impacts range from short-term, such as big-game animals being frightened away by construction noise, to long-term, such as fragmented northern spotted owl habitat. The pipeline right of way also would create an unnatural corridor for wildlife interactions that likely have not occurred in some of these largely undisturbed areas on federal lands.

"There's nothing in nature like that," says Steve Niemela, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist reviewing the pipeline's potential impacts in Jackson County. "Only man makes these long, linear strips that are maintained."

FERC's draft is full of short- and long-term mitigation strategies to offset some of these impacts, ranging from wetlands creation to the decommissioning of nearly 100 miles of forest roads to make up for lost connectivity of habitat.

Based on those mitigation proposals, FERC concludes that the project would have no significant adverse impacts within the 19 separate watersheds bisected by the 232-mile proposed pipeline, the draft states.

FERC and Pacific Connector already have been working with federal land managers on these myriad issues, including possible amendments to six resource-management plans to make pipeline construction possible through federal lands.

The Forest Service and federal Bureau of Land Management are "absolutely in tune" to the draft proposals and mitigation plans now under scrutiny from land managers, pipeline spokesman Michael Hinrichs says.

"In the entire country, our EIS is probably one of the most thoroughly vetted EISes out there," Hinrichs says.

Recreating habitat in the backwoods would have its winners and losers, Niemela says.

Big-game species such as deer and elk would find the corridor's planted grasses good feeding areas, unless unedible noxious weeds overtook the terrain, Niemela says.

The corridor also would open access for two-legged, four-legged, two-winged and even belly predators, Niemela says.

Birds such as ravens and crows would have access to the eggs and chicks of nesting forest birds such as siskins and warblers, as would coyotes, foxes and even snakes, Niemela says.

As they do with electrical power line easements, legal hunters and illegal poachers would find easier access deeper into the forest, so access points need to be blocked to vehicles, Niemela says.  

"It creates a certain vulnerability for these animals," Niemela says. "You're going to have a whole different habitat and there will be some species that will use it."

While some mitigation work would offset habitat losses quickly, some would take generations, Niemela says. For instance. the pipeline would travel through some mature oak woodlands in Jackson County, which are some of the last remaining such stands in Western Oregon.

"It could take 100 to 200 years for them to re-establish," Niemela says.

Pieces of the pipeline already have been rerouted to steer clear of sensitive areas within the upper Trail Creek drainage, according to the draft.

Hinrichs says FERC and the pipeline owners will be addressing these questions in documents after the public comment period ends Feb. 13. Also, more mitigation projects could be in the works following the release in 2015 of a biological assessment of the project's potential impacts, he says.

"I understand their (wildlife advocates') concerns," Hinrichs says. "We do all we can to minimize any impact. That's what the EIS process is all about."

Even how the pipeline would alter the view is addressed in the EIS.

FERC states that the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest would have to change wording in its resource-management plan that requires mitigating any impacts that adversely affect the views of a natural-appearing forest for PCT hikers and horseback riders, according to the draft EIS.

The draft requests a lengthening of the three-year mitigation requirement on visual impacts to 10 years on a 5-acre patch that would be visible from the PCT.

Once construction is completed, Pacific Connector would maintain a 50-foot right of way, but likely plant trees on the fringes and retain a 30-foot-wide strip of "herbaceous vegetation" for maintenance access, according to the draft.

The draft states that maintained strip would not be visible from other trails or roads and claims not to change the long-term land and resource management in that area.

It would, however, mean PCT hikers and horseback riders would see the maintained corridor for one to three minutes as they pass through, the draft states.

Lesley Adams believes the original visual standards created for the PCT there should not be tampered with.

"Instead of protecting these visual standards, they're choosing to violate them and hikers get to see a clearcut," Adams says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

For more stories, videos, an interactive map and links to online resources, visit www.mailtribune.com/project-pipeline.

Lesley Adams, foreground, and Morgan Lindsay approach a ribbon that marks the proposed location of the LNG pipeline on the Pacific Crest Trail near the Jackson/Klamath County line. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch