Guest column: Streams pay a price for forest roads

by Mary Scurlock
The Bulletin, Sept. 24, 2017

On Aug. 26 The Bulletin editorialized about a recent research publication under the header “Forest roads don’t always damage streams.” The piece makes fair points that there are sound social and economic reasons why we build roads in forests, and that modern road designs can reduce harmful sediment delivery to streams.

What is missing from this editorial is the bigger picture. At the most basic level, the scientific literature is overwhelmingly clear that forest roads provide no benefit to the health of our rivers and streams. Forest roads are a necessity, but one that comes at a cost to clean water.

As The Bulletin correctly notes, there is much about harm from roads that this study doesn’t tell us. For example, harm from roads doesn’t come from just a few logging road segments. Anyone who has flown over the Coast Range or the Cascades knows that most of our watersheds have dense road systems that look like thousands of miles of silly string. A range of effects from road systems across the landscape creates a combined impact. For example, sediment pollution that enters headwater streams from multiple roads ends up in downstream salmon habitat. Among other impacts, fine sediment can smother spawning gravel for salmon.

Critically, the cited Oregon State University study only measures sediment delivery to small headwater streams from a narrow set of activities associated with single logging events. But we know these activities are drops in the bucket, occurring on top of other impacts from harvest and haul on other roads across the entire landscape. Additionally, the study does not address failure of high-risk road segments during large storms. Upgrading and removing old roads at risk of failure is something that conservation groups strongly support on federal lands, and that forward-thinking private timberland owners also invest in.

Local evidence of low sediment impacts is something to celebrate. However, it would be a mistake to assume that these results mean that there are no cumulative sediment pollution or other impacts from forest roads. In fact, the authors themselves admit that “it is difficult to make broad generalizations from our findings.” Without a better understanding of these cumulative effects, it is an oversimplification to claim that the impact of forest roads is overblown or imaginary. Ignoring the bigger picture misdirects public attention away from a pressing stream protection and restoration problem in Oregon, while critical advances are made in Washington and California.

— Mary Scurlock is the coordinator of the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition.