June 23, 2015
By Chris Frissell and Mary Scurlock
for the Register Guard
Something really good for streams and salmon could be about to happen at the Oregon Board of Forestry. The stars are aligned for reform: a straightforward legal mandate, strong support from homegrown science and a new governor owing no special allegiance to timber interests.
But if history — or public posturing at recent board meetings — is any guide, nothing much will happen. For decades, citizens, conservation and fishing groups, scientists and federal agencies have lambasted Oregon’s logging rules for failing to protect water quality and fish habitat. Fish-friendly stream rules are a broken promise of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s heralded Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, and in the absence of reform the state continues to draw sustained fire from federal agencies and concerned citizens.
The scientific basis for leaving more trees next to streams has grown stronger with time, and it’s become more certain that voluntary restoration projects can’t substitute for statewide stream protection policies. Native salmon, trout and amphibian species are still fighting just to survive, let alone recover.
Washington and California responded years ago by adopting logging rules that are far more effective at keeping water cool and promoting recovery of fish habitats. Oregon reneged.
Still at the epicenter of this tale is the seven-member Board of Forestry, whose legal mandate is to adopt logging rules that meet state water quality standards and the federal Clean Water Act. The water quality goals the board’s rules must meet are set by the state’s expert water quality authority, the Environmental Quality Commission, and are designed to protect the public’s right to clean water and the fish and wildlife dependent on freshwater ecosystems.
Historically, the board has taken its cues from forest landowners and logging operators, who have little incentive to support stronger rules because legally they are completely safe from prosecution for degrading water quality — even though it is public knowledge that current rules don’t effectively protect streams. State law presumes that if a landowner or harvester follows the board’s logging rules, water quality standards will be met — even if the logging actually degrades water quality. This arrangement would make perfect sense if the logging rules actually met water quality standards (they don’t), or if the board were nimble and politically willing to respond quickly to information showing its rules need reform (it hasn’t been to date).
We know beyond any doubt that our current logging rules are deficient. Clearcutting is allowed to within 20 feet of most fish-bearing streams — many of which harbor federally protected salmon, steelhead or trout. Logging-induced shade loss allows the sun to heat water beyond legal limits. The few trees remaining can’t provide enough wood for streams to create pool habitats or regulate the flow of sediment and nutrients from the adjacent clearcuts.
The result: streams that are warmer and generally more hostile to cold-water-loving salmon and other freshwater species. The state’s most recent analysis shows that a 100- to 120-foot buffer is needed to prevent illegal stream warming; this recommendation doesn’t consider climate change, which will make streamside protection even more critical.
In the past, industry’s chokehold on the status quo was assured by industry domination of the forestry board’s consensus voting process. Today, the board votes by majority, and representation is far more balanced. Nonetheless, the board was presented six years ago with irrefutable scientific evidence from the Department of Forestry’s own study that current logging rules allow significant instream warming. Yet logging still proceeds today under the same old rules.
Is it still acceptable for Board of Forestry members to serve short-term private profits, even though public officials are sworn to serve the public? At recent public meetings, certain members of the board openly state they won’t support leaving more trees next to streams because they believe complying with laws that protect the public’s water isn’t necessary. These board members apparently didn’t get the memo: It is not within the board’s authority or expertise to question the water quality laws. It is the board’s duty to meet them.
It’s now beyond obvious that stronger rules are necessary to protect stream ecosystems that belong to and benefit us all — not just those who take short-term profit by streamside logging on private forestlands. Gov. Kate Brown can help by directing the board to follow the science and the law to enact the streamside protection necessary to meet Oregon’s water quality standards.
Chris Frissell is an aquatic ecologist affiliated with the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. Mary Scurlock is a freshwater law and policy expert who coordinates the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition.