Bear Creek Headwaters
The headwaters for Bear Creek are in pastureland atop a slight ridge southeast of Molalla. The rain splits along this rise, with some flowing west into Bear Creek, while on the other side it flows east, into the Molalla River. The soils are heavy with clay. Trees grow very well; after all, this is Oregon and the Willamette Valley. Most locals know this place as Coleman Ranch and, as ranchland, it is open and fenced — and generally treeless.
There was a time when these pastures were covered with trees, and the trees fed a veritable gold rush. Sawmills popped up overnight, and local men worked in teams with horses and primitive steam-powered engines. Some men lived long seasons in logging camps, pulling bucksaws and swinging axes; others were able to raise their families in town — some men hauled the logs, while other men lost their hearing and a few fingers toiling near the spinning blades that fed the banks.
Mill owners were god-like. They owned everything in town, so the money they paid out to their crews came right back to their stores. Or, in the case of Molalla, where mill owners also owned the saloons, much of the money was tossed back across the bar.
The trees fell, and a new economy arose. All sorts of farming came, and went. The soils, in places like Coleman Ranch, turned out to be just too sopping wet through too much of the year, and in the long dry months of summer the clays hardened and cracked. Past forests had buffered these harsh seasonal extremes but, once the trees were gone and the crops had proven too unreliable, that squinty eye for money said the final best use was to grow hay and raise livestock. And so it came to be that today, the highest headwaters of a lost ‘Bear Creek’ are flattened and filled and trodden … a place for cattle, and a place for irrigation cannons shooting summer sewage wastewater. And the locals, when they go to and from Feyrer park and the Molalla gorge to swim and to fish … they all pass through this place called Coleman Ranch.
Where the Rains Flow
The heat of August draws many to swim in the Molalla River, but come September the nights begin to cool and the apples ripen, and while locals stack wood and hunt and watch their kids kick soccer balls, the Oregon rains set in.
And they stay, reliably, until June, sometimes even into July. Three feet of rain (or thereabouts) falls on the headwaters area of Bear Creek. It soaks in at first, but when the soils become water-logged, the rain pools and soon starts to flow. Stream cuts become common on the west side of Mathias Road.
The heart of downtown Molalla is a plodding four-way stop sign, where Highway 211 crosses east-west through the north-south Molalla Ave.
Just a few blocks south is the library, and a few blocks further, at the south edge of the city blocks, Bear Creek crosses through. Sometimes, when the rain falls too heavily and the soils have no capacity to absorb, this area floods and becomes a small lake.
At the lowest stretch and to the west side of Molalla Ave is a broad area of flat asphalt and vacant industrial sheds. This area is where a bunch of mills once popped up in and around Bear Creek. Old photographs show that there were at least three wigwam burners in the area, for burning off the excess wood scrap. There had been numerous mill owners, but Avison eventually dominated. A few years ago, this site took on a new name: ‘Floragon’, a subsidiary of Interfor.
Avison still owns their other large mill site, south of the high school football field. The land was cleared and the old log pond filled in years ago. Formerly known as Avison Mill No.1, it is now a large vacant area, fenced off and waiting. It has been on the market for years, but still no industrial development.
A Legacy of Sawmill Contaminants
Both the Floragon and Avison sites have contaminant issues. For decades, pentachlorophenol (PCP) was liberally applied to raw lumber as a preservative. The cut lumber was stacked, then fork-lifted around the yard, dipped into open dip tanks, and repositioned to drip-dry locations. In the process (and, owing to those seasonal Bear Creek floods), quantities of PCP became attached to soil particles and worked their way into the Bear Creek stream sediments. Worse, because the method of producing PCP’s was crude, the purity was quite low, with 10-16% other chlorinated compounds, including the very hazardous furans and dioxins. All of these chemicals are, like DDT, not just toxic but also quite persistent. As a rule of thumb, the assortment of chlorinated organic compounds synthesized by humans have almost always yielded short-term benefits but enormous long-term health hazards. The U.S. EPA (and similar agencies in other countries) eventually banned PCP use by the general public in the late 1980’s.
Molalla (and Bear Creek) are not at all unique with this problem. It turns out that there are PCP contamination issues at dozens — perhaps most — of the lumber mills in all three West Coast states. The health issues have been accepted for more than three decades, yet the contamination is still not cleaned up. Through all the ongoing delay, the goal that has emerged is to ensure people — especially growing children — do not come into contact with these chlorinated compounds. There are two predominant strategies: you either remove the contaminant, or you bury it out of reach. Removal involves thousands of truckloads hauling contaminated soil to large landfill sites, plus hauling in just as many truckloads of acceptably clean soil. On-site burial involves moving dirt around — carve out a hole, then batch all the contaminated soil into that hole, and then hide it under a paved surface or large foundation. On-site burial is far less expensive, and thus widely preferred by the former-mill owners who want to just cash out on the land they own. Consequently, pressure is brought to bear on DEQ and city/county officials to develop many of these contamination sites industrially, as ‘brownfields’. Effectively, these lands are considered not suitable for residential habitation … though nobody wants to talk about that.
And what does this mean for Bear Creek? Today, as has been the case for decades now, we have hundreds of acres of post-industrial blight around a contaminated creek, where we might have had a vibrant stream with healthy natural areas, surrounded by parks and compatibly constructed neighborhoods. On top of that, we continue to see city and county efforts to produce industrial development of these lands, and an endless parade of funding for industrial bypass roads and other wasteful schemes. Like water, the money flows until it dries up….
And the Rain Flows On
So, what happens to the three feet (+/-) of rain that falls at Coleman Ranch each Oregon rainy season? Some slowly seeps in to recharge the groundwater. The rest of it puddles, then funnels toward the streambed and to the west, eventually to the rivers.
Below the mill sites at Molalla Ave, Bear Creek turns to the northwest and parallels the old Molalla Forest Road — which happens to be a very pleasant hike, run or ride. The creek then crosses Highway 211, just east of the Safeway, and flows under Highway 213 near the massive residential subdivisions that have been built up in recent years.
Just west of Highway 213, Bear Creek passes the Molalla Sewage Treatment Plant. The two large septic ponds discharge through a large pipe on the north end. Originally, that pipe opened straight into Bear Creek,* but in 2006 Molalla STP began discharging into the Molalla River. From there it flows through Canby to the Willamette, over the falls at Oregon City, through Portland, then down the Columbia and on to the Pacific. At all places downstream, whatever Molalla STP fails to remove — the sawmill contaminants, the pharmaceuticals, and everything else — place other people and other creatures at risk.
Water quality matters … which is why we need to take care of Bear Creek.