A handful of Portland-area Democrats and environmental groups have their eyes on the 2015 legislative session, where they hope to win timber reforms. Their first goal is putting new limits on aerial spraying of pesticides on forest land near public drinking water.
The conservation groups eventually want to increase state authority over cutting, among other things, but officials are throwing their weight for now behind proposals to increase buffer zones between spraying areas and drinking water and to increase the notification requirements for nearby residents.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland has recently led the charge to tighten restrictions in Oregon’s Forest Practices Act — more lax than regulations in neighboring states — and state Representative Ann Lininger of Lake Oswego is joining the effort by drafting a bill this year.
“I think there are ways to address public health impacts that would still enable really healthy forest industry uses,” Lininger said.
The forest industry isn’t buying it, arguing that the legislators and environmental groups are racing ahead to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
Conservation groups are trying to build evidence that the reforms are past due.
The Center for Sustainable Economy — a national organization with a three-month-old branch in Lake Oswego — filed a complaint Dec. 18 with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The complaint claims that Plum Creek, a Seattle-based company that logs along the Oregon coast, violated the practices required for the sustainable forestry certification.
The complaint asks for Plum Creek’s certification to be suspended, the logo removed from the company’s products and an investigation. John Talberth, head of the organization, is skeptical the certifying body’s investigation will have any effect. Instead, he’s hoping to rally enough outrage over Oregon’s accepted timber practices that residents demand reforms.
“The state and private forest lands are already in tragic conditions, and part of the problem is that Oregon has some of the weakest regulations in the region,” Talberth said.
An Oregonian investigation in October found that Oregon lacks the buffers and pesticide spraying parameters other western states require.
Oregon Wild has long advocated for stream protections, not just for the residents who drink the water, but for salmon and other wildlife that live in and near it. Steve Pedery, conservation director of the conservation group, said it struggles each year to rally enough legislators to stand up to the timber industry.
But with recent attention to herbicide spraying missing its mark, prompting complaints from Curry County residents, Pedery and others think this might be their chance.
“I’m not sure how it will play out. I tend to view the herbicide issue as the test case to see if this Legislature has the belly to stand up to the timber industry,” Pedery said.
Those in the industry are skeptical Oregon needs to change. Scott Dahlman, who heads the industry group Oregonians for Food and Shelter, said buffers aren’t needed.
The group advocates for the right of farmers, foresters and chemical suppliers and sprayers to use pesticides. Dahlman said most people who use pesticides are careful with the application, and that Oregon’s loose restrictions give workers the freedom to note weather conditions and make spraying decisions on the fly.
“Putting a numerical buffer in place is just taking away the flexibility of operators to apply where they need to,” Dahlman said.
Any new oversight would also depend on money, which the Oregon Department of Forestry lacks.
The department cut back on staff and priorities in previous years to make up for declining revenue. Increasing oversight of logging would require a shifting of resources for legislators.
Lininger said she thinks that’s possible.
“There’s a lot of shared recognition we can make some progress by funding adequate oversight,” Lininger said. “I think there’s a lot of willingness to take steps to make sure we’re protecting public health and drinking water.”