Shaking the Tree

Oklahoma Gazette | September 16, 2005
Staring at the thick canopy of limbs and leaves that embrace Lake Atoka, Jim Cox knows this Thursday is just like any other Thursday in recent memory. His concern is unchanged: How long will the forest remain untouched by loggers?

The forest surrounding the lake is a riparian no man’s land with a soft mat of pine needles cushioning every step, if one’s so bold as to take a step in these woods.

Aside from the shell of an outhouse glinting from the rays of sun that graze its bullet-hole-riddled surface, some littered beer cans and the dirt roads whose mold had been cast by all-terrain vehicles, there are few signs of human existence. Life within the forest walls consists mostly of birds, beavers, copperheads, and some obnoxious horseflies and ticks.

An avuncular-looking man, somewhat hirsute with wiry whiskers poking out beyond the boundaries of his beard, Cox sees beauty in the forestland, yet can also point out something dark and wild and perhaps a little tragic about it, too: where a man was murdered and a woman was raped, where poker games were played in the black veil of night and, most tragic in Cox’s opinion, where Oklahoma City plans to log.

There’s a lawlessness that runs counter to the graceful curves of the streams, and it’s a lawlessness Cox blames on what he considers Oklahoma City’s neglect of Lake Atoka and the thousands of acres of surrounding forest owned by the municipality.

Cox, a Coal County resident who has lived 20 years on the edge of Lake Atoka, and his cousin Bob Jackman of Tulsa argue that little has been done to police and improve the landscape, let alone merely maintain it. That alleged neglect is why they say they are suspicious of the city’s claim that logging is for the betterment of the forest, a way to prevent erosion.

Cox and Jackman call the city’s rationale for logging junk science, and believe they have the experts to back them up. Logging, they say, would be an indignity to Mother Nature and a possible financial wasteland for Oklahoma City residents since about $650,000 has been spent on the site since 1994 with no one bidding for the timber harvest contract.

But Oklahoma City Water and Wastewater Utilities Department officials firmly believe that logging is best for the area’s water quality, ecosystem and recreational enhancement, and have their own experts to contend that removing trees will open the canopy and allow grass to grow and keep soil in place.

So who’s right?

Seeding dissent

Atoka is a long way from the metro. Local residents curious as to how a lake so far from OKC could possibly pertain to them should look no further than their faucets: Lake Atoka — plus McGee Creek reservoir — accounts for about 50 percent of the city’s water.

To think that water running through the tap actually travels nearly 100 miles is staggering, but after drought conditions and water rationing in Fifties-era Oklahoma City, the city began its quest for a reliable reservoir and found it in the rain-drenched southeastern part of the state. The reservoir was constructed in 1959, funneling water 100 miles through a 60-inch pipeline to Lake Stanley Draper, according to the city’s Web site.

If that were the end of the story, however, everyone would probably be happy, but it’s not. The city’s control of the area has brought accusations of mismanagement of the lake, with which it shares the water rights with the city of Atoka (Oklahoma City owns most of the rights) and the surrounding forest land. Claims of dumped animal carcasses and, according to The Associated Press, a grand jury recommendation in 2000 declaring Lake Atoka a public nuisance, albeit stopping short of any accusations or indictments, have merely fueled ire among locals like Jim Cox and his wife, Elaine, a native Oklahoma Cityan. Cox and Jackman have filed lawsuits because of the proposed logging and continue to voice their side during Oklahoma City Council meetings when anything related to Lake Atoka’s logging makes the agenda.

“Sitting in that council meeting the other day (Aug. 16) gave me a fresh appreciation for their (city leaders) place in this world — it doesn’t excuse it, but I have an appreciation for it. They’re putting out fires, right and left, on a big scale, and everything to them is about the dollar. And they haven’t figured out yet that you can’t drink the dollar bill,” Cox said. “The only time there would be a water crisis up there (in Oklahoma City) is if they turned their faucets on and nothing came out, then people would pay attention and that would be such a shame. In the long run, down the road, if they go ahead and destroy this forest, this lake is going to silt in — there’s no doubt about it.”

The issue of logging doesn’t appear until 1994. It was that year that the Lake Atoka Reservation Association (LARA) received an unsolicited request to log timber at the lake. LARA was created by Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust (OCWUT) and the city of Atoka in 1974 to administer use of the reservation, its resources and facilities, said Oklahoma City Water and Wastewater Utilities Department Director Marsha Slaughter.

The request prompted LARA to recommend researching the proposal to cut timber and soon talk of lake turbidity — the cloudiness of water due to the existence of suspended particles — and erosion began to surface. Jackman thinks the circumstance raises a “chicken or the egg” question: Did turbidity and erosion prompt the consideration of logging the area or did the unsolicited proposal seed the idea of logging for profit?

OKC’s Slaughter said it’s a little bit of both.

“There was an unsolicited proposal received by the Lake Atoka Reservation Association and that precipitated discussion on the appropriate action,” she said. “… We started doing the due diligence that’s required to take the action, with — I know this is debated — but with good scientific information. It’s important to us that we look at the archeological background of a site, that we look at the biota on the site.”

OCWUT takes water utilities money from rate-payers buying water utilities services — and even sewer utilities services — and invests it. Some financial decisions require Oklahoma City Council approval, since it has an oversight role of trusts, Slaughter said.

Right now, OCWUT has paid dearly for those trees’ removal: $329,394.08 for construction costs for Lake Landing Road; $5,000 for a land access agreement and $6,735 for fence repair work to Paschall Land Management; $141,977.64 so far to Cross Timbers Forestry for consultation, lawsuit assignments, testimony, stand management and Atoka water quality monitoring; $4,000 for the Briscoe Archeological Survey at Lake Atoka; $4,575 and $5,295 to Francie Sisson for cultural resource surveys; and $163,000 to Spear & McCaleb Co. for a turbidity study. All of it necessary, but Jackman said officials need more scientific proof before one tree sees a chain saw.

Weird science?

Obviously, OCWUT — and the city —has studies as proof that the logging will be sensitive to any existing cultural and environmental issues. And Slaughter said she understands that scientists aren’t always going to agree with each other.

Not only does Jackman, who said he is an independent geologist, argue the results of those studies, he also said that scientific studies should come from several independent sources. The two professional studies (one by Cross Timbers Forestry and the other by Spear & McCaleb) that look at erosion have one man in common: state-certified forester Tim Cannon of Cross Timbers Forestry. Cannon was subcontracted by Spear & McCaleb, not by Oklahoma City, LARA or OCWUT, for its report on turbidity — one of the most debated topics of the logging.

Spear & McCaleb, an engineering firm that has also been used by Wal-Mart during construction of the Shawnee Supercenter and the retailer’s much-debated Edmond location near the Fox Lake housing addition, claims that the turbidity isn’t located in a specific area but is evenly distributed throughout the lake. Its report also states that Lake Stanley Draper’s turbidity is caused by the inflow from Atoka, with “some suspended sediments from its own watershed.”

Discussion of turbidity isn’t new when conversations turn to Lake Atoka. Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB) did survey the area for four quarters from November 2001 to August 2002, with five water sampling sites. OWRB’s Beneficial Use Monitoring Program report calls Lake Atoka’s water clarity “poor based on low Secchi disk depth and high turbidity values.” (A Secchi disk is placed in the water, attached to a waterproof string, and the point where the disk vanishes and then reappears in the water shows the transparency of the water.) Yet it allows that “Atoka Lake has always had high levels of clay particulates suspended in the water column, which results in low water clarity” and further notes the water clarity “is likely to always be poor based on the soil composition of the area.”

Cox calls the idea of turbidity hogwash and points to clear water in Sandy Creek, which is near a proposed logging site, as evidence of the city’s questionable science. While dirt does sit at the bottom of the stream, the creek water is clear enough to see the bottom with ease. Visibly, there are signs of erosion near makeshift roads, but Jackman said whatever turbidity exists in the waters gets its source within the lake and not outside, arguing that logging won’t solve the turbidity issue and that tree roots will help keep soil in place.

A 1985 article in Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science, which heavily cites a 1981-1982 OWRB report, noted that “Lake Atoka is frequently drawn down by withdrawals of water for Oklahoma City, causing large areas of the former flood plain at the north end of the lake to become very shallow. The prevailing southwesterly winds, and the long southwest-to-northeast axis of the lake, increase the probability of significant wave action. A positive correlation was found between lake turbidity and amount of drawdown. The turbidity of tributary water was usually less than that of the lake, indicating that the dominant sources of turbidity are within the lake.”

Even if the two sides were to agree on the existence and source of turbidity, how to rectify the problem would still be up in the air, and logging wouldn’t be a viable solution for some scientists.

David Stahle, a distinguished professor of geosciences at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and the director of the Tree Ring Laboratory, said Oklahoma has some of “the most extensive tracts of never cut old-growth forests that are still left in the United States, especially the eastern United States.”

Stahle has mapped the old-growth forest on the Ancient Cross Timbers Consortium Web site,, a group of university scientists and professional conservationists and landowners. His greatest area of understanding is the west side of the Atoka forest, where he says the land is most pristine.

“So many of these trees predate American democracy, the Constitution, some of them are 300, 400 years old — some even older than that,” Stahle said of the cross timbers forest of post oak and blackjack oak mixed with old short-leaf pine. “The woodlands are valuable. They maybe don’t make good saw logs, but they’re outstanding habitat for game animals, for hunting, and they’re great habitat for wildlife and for wildlife viewing. It’s part of Oklahoma’s natural heritage and we need to conserve this.”

Stahle said Oklahoma is in a unique position by having so much forestland intact, so much forestland that has never been logged. The lack of human disturbance, he said, means that Oklahoma has fewer ecological problems than other states.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, an ancient forest is “typically older than 200 years with large trees, dense canopies and an abundance of diverse wildlife.” Those against logging believe the Atoka forest fits that definition.

Forester Cannon isn’t so sure. In an Oct. 9, 2000, letter to Jan New, former trust specialist for Oklahoma City’s Water and Wastewater Utilities Department, Cannon writes: “On the 20th, myself and one technician went to Atoka and cored some oak trees on the northern most point of the Stand 3, where it is very rocky and there is very little soil. These oak trees ranged from 11 to 16 inches in diameter, were growing in very inhospitable areas, and they did prove to have 20 to 25 rings to the inch. This would put them in the 200 year range that we have been talking about.

“This issue of ‘ancient’ forest is a very complex one. I have written a letter to Ian Butler with the Biological Survey requesting some type that [sic] definitive statement from his organization as to what constitutes ‘ancient’ post oak forests, although I’m doing it with the knowledge that he doesn’t have a clue as to what such a description would be.”

An ancient land

Cannon may not be sure what constitutes an ancient land, but Jackman is pretty sure he knows: It’s one rich in diverse wildlife.

While no endangered species have been spotted outside of the American Burying Beetle, some scientists think the Atoka forest is the perfect spot for the red-cockaded woodpecker, which is endangered. Slaughter denies that the woodpecker is known to inhabit the area, noting that no concrete evidence supports these birds in the Atoka forest.

“The Lake Atoka forest is old enough to probably support populations of the red-cockaded woodpecker and it is a suitable habitat,” East Central University biology professor Michael Bay said. “There have been some searches throughout and there have been a few possible cavities (in trees) that look like the cavities of the red-cockaded woodpecker — they haven’t been definite findings. But it’s a pretty big area that just needs to be thoroughly searched and it probably hasn’t been thoroughly searched, so who’s to say that species isn’t there?”

Bay, who specializes in avian ecology, suggested that the area may possibly serve as wintering habitat for the bald eagle, an animal protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Bay said the forest area needs to be scrutinized for other species as well, so that scientists can determine just what actually inhabits the forest prior to any disturbance such as logging.

Oklahoma City contracted Southern Ecological Services (SES) in 2001 to conduct an environmental impact survey of timber harvests on existing eagle populations. The survey spotted bald eagles on 10 separate occasions during a six-day period but noted only two utilizing the Lake Atoka area. SES further states that due to competition among trees, there’s not enough vertical growth to encourage eagles to nest in the area. The study looks at stands two and three of the proposed logging areas.

Bay said it’s important for surveys to look at the entire scope of the forest — and gain at least some understanding of the entire scope of its species — and be conducted in more than six days.

“That is not a scientific study,” he said. “You cannot possibly survey a large contiguous forest in six days. … It’s bad science at best.”

Fragmentation is another issue. Bay contends that logging fragments the forest and encourages predatory animals to flock to the area, especially the brown-headed cowbird, a parasitic nester. In an area that acts as home to some migratory birds, a parasite like the brown-headed cowbird could actually mean lower fecundity for such migratory species, since they often don’t have time to “re-nest.”

“A lot of birds really rely on a large area in order for them to successfully hide their nests — there are fewer predators that would be able to successfully find a nest in a large forested area. You cut the area down and reduce its size, then the chance of finding these nests increases significantly,” he said.

Many of Bay’s concerns are articulated in a Trust for Public Land report, an “assessment of need” for Oklahoma’s forests. According to a 2002 press release, TPL consulted with agencies, communities, landowners and timber companies to compile data and assess priorities for forest protection. Although the project was put on hold by the Division of Forestry about two years ago and the report was never finalized, it’s still insightful. Looking at southeastern Oklahoma forest — which includes Atoka, Bryan, Coal, Choctaw, Haskell, Hughes, Latimer, Leflore, McCurtain, Pittsburg and Pushmataha counties — the study notes that “there are 17 species that are endangered, threatened or of concern. They include the American alligator, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the interior least tern.”

The report also shows concern for fragmentation, which it states “is rapidly becoming a threat to the forest lands of southeastern Oklahoma as more and more large tracts are subdivided for resort and second home development.” The recommendations and goals? 1. Maintain cultural and economic contributions to rural communities; 2. protect riparian habitat; 3. maintain traditional forest uses and prevent fragmentation; and 4. provide public outdoor recreation opportunities.

Interestingly those goals, at least in conversation, are shared by both Jackman et al. and city officials. It’s how to go about accomplishing them that proves to be the sticking point.

Felled future?

So far the trees haven’t been felled. No money seems to be growing on these trees. But Cox and Jackman have pulled no punches in their efforts to stop the logging. Their arguments for not logging run like a laundry list: protecting the American Burying Beetle, an endangered species that does exist within the forest; bald eagle sightings; and the potential that the forest may provide habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker. Plus, Choctaw and Caddo tribes have cultural claims at Lake Atoka, as both have discovered burial grounds and sacred sites in the forest. Jackman also said there are traces of pre-Civil War historical sites, such as the Butterfield Overland Mail Route stagecoach road, and that the National Park Service has shown interest in the forest site. Archeologists who surveyed the area for OCWUT and OKC didn’t find any reason to stop the logging.

But perhaps Jackman and Cox, and more recently The Sierra Club, didn’t need to raise their voices after all. Perhaps there’s not a lot of interest in the area among loggers. It’s possible.

The city solicited bids for a logging contract, sending out packets to 50 potential bidders beginning July 6, but no timber harvest bids were received by the Aug. 9 deadline. The city now must figure out where it went wrong in what officials see as a relatively “new” experience in the logging industry, Slaughter said. Without a bidder, the process must begin anew and it’s possible that no logging will take place this year, she added, since the work cannot disturb the endangered American Burying Beetle.

On top of that, the Oklahoma City Water Utilities Trust struck discussion of the timber harvest bid from its Aug. 30 agenda.

“We sought proposals for select cutting in two areas totaling about 310 acres. We received no proposals,” Slaughter said. “We telephoned vendors that we thought might have been interested in the project and they gave us some feedback about things they would change to seek bids. Those changes would have included eliminating a warranty bond, a $10,000 bond, and changing the method by which we paid them, from an acreage basis or total for the project to a per-ton basis. The trust determined that it would prefer not to act on the contract option as presented and struck the item on the agenda rather than denying the item as presented.”

Admittedly, Slaughter said OCWUT has put some money into the forestry issue. There’s conservatively about $650,000 invested in the site, including timber management and erosion studies by forester Tim Cannon and engineering firm Spear & McCaleb, archeological studies, not to mention purchase of a road and fencing — that number doesn’t include the money to fight any legal issues that have arisen. A few rate-payers might be raising their eyebrows asking if they’re seeing rate increases because of the expenditures. It’s a good question, but Slaughter claims the answer is an emphatic “no,” that increases are more likely from higher fuel and natural gas costs than anything else.

Slaughter said the two preliminary logging sites have an estimated return of $173,600. However, she cautions that a lack of competition for the project may result in a lower profit. The money, however, will go back into the Lake Atoka area, Slaughter said, and will not help to recoup what’s already invested in the area.

“Would the city pay itself back? No, no. The intention was to continue to plow that money (any profits) into Lake Atoka, much in the same way that at Lake Hefner, for example, we have a relationship with the East Wharf Development Program that produces income and (we) make some improvements to Lake Hefner,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said the idea is to use money generated by the timber harvest for improvements to the Lake Atoka area — better access to the lake with improved roadways and organized boat ramps, and even picnic facilities.

“It appeared that we struck on a method that would produce some income on the property which would help users there and users here,” she said. “That was the whole intent. What our partners at the Lake Atoka Reservation Association want to do next, we don’t know. But we’re ready to go forward. ... I think there are a lot of benefits to a managed forest.”

Neither Jackman nor Cox believes Oklahoma City or OCWUT would log if they couldn’t turn a profit.

But admittedly, the stalled timber bid process has Jackman somewhat relieved, for now, but also a bit dismayed.

“It brings up a number of questions (as to) why and then it puts more egg on their face. Think about this: They spent $300,000 to $400,000 building that dual-purpose road, which was logging and recreation, then they also paid $5,000 to Paschall Land Company for an easement into area A and they also built for Paschall … two miles of new fence, and it’s expensive fence,” Jackman said. “There’s not a contractor in the United States that would go out and build and spend that kind of money on access roads and mobilization things without a hard contract in his pocket. It makes them look dumb — beyond dumb.”

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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