Guest Opinion: Board of Forestry fails to protect Southern Oregon salmon

In Medford’s Mail Tribune

By Forrest English

Posted Nov. 21, 2015 at 12:01 AM

I was standing on a bridge in town recently, watching salmon below me move upstream. These fish were at the end of a long journey. A journey that started in this very creek years before when they emerged from the gravels, made their way to the ocean and now had fought their way back upstream to spawn and start the cycle anew.

As I stood there dozens of people walked up and asked if I’d seen the fish. Many strangers eventually stood together in awe watching these salmon dart about the pool and thrash their tails building a nest for eggs.

The Oregon Board of Forestry unfortunately, demonstrated no such awe for salmon and our societal obligation to protect habitat that is so critical to the fish and our culture and economy.

In a recent decision intended to increase protection for our streams and salmon from the impacts of logging along streams, the Board missed the mark by a mile. Not only did the Board fail to implement protections that scientists identify would meet legal obligations to protect water quality critical to salmon survival, but they also elected to leave out southwest Oregon (the Siskiyou region) entirely from the limited protections granted to regions north of us.

While there were two votes for stronger protections, the timber industry interests on the board prevailed in weakening the buffers and excluding the Siskiyou region. It’s as if the Board believes that the physics of how streamside trees create habitat, keep our streams cool with shade, and filter pollution do not apply to southwest Oregon.

Scientists have been looking for years at how big streamside buffers would need to be to meet the legal requirements to protect cool water for fish and inform a Board decision to meet them. In addition to the existing body of evidence that these buffers are critical and needed, the Department of Forestry studied the issue in western Oregon with many sites on timberland in the so called RipStream study.

The Department heard from both their own staff, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and independent scientists that the results of the RipStream study showed that the minimum buffer size that would have any real confidence of meeting the legal requirements is at least 100 feet.

The evidence identifies that even if forests may be somewhat drier and sparser in the Siskiyou region that makes up most of the Rogue River watershed, those conditions would make warming of streams even MORE likely by removal of those trees, not less. The Department’s own research in fact showed that streams with a lower density of tree cover were equally or more sensitive to increases in temperature from the removal of additional trees.

The evidence also shows that 80-foot no cut buffers on medium streams, and 60-foot buffers on small streams identified by the Board’s decision in the rest of western Oregon simply does not go far enough, and it certainly doesn’t justify throwing southwest Oregon under the bus by excluding the region entirely from those small steps forward.

Many streams in our area are already suffering from temperatures too high for cold-water fish like salmon. Oregon’s water quality restoration plans highlight temperature problems throughout the Rogue Basin and elsewhere throughout the state. Removing streamside trees and warming headwater streams will likewise warm up waterways that salmon depend on downstream, something the Board’s decision again fails to address.

As if that weren’t enough, a warming climate is already placing additional pressure on our streams. The last two summers have served as a window into what the future may look like, leaving less water in our streams and that quickly becomes very warm. In the face of climate change, we must develop policies that help us build resilient communities and aquatic ecosystems so we will still have access to clean, cold water.

People in the Rogue Valley are very attached to the salmon and clean water that make this a special place to live, locals look forward to fishing, or just watching them move up stream for many generations to come. I wish the Board of Forestry shared that vision.

Forrest English is the program director of Rogue Riverkeeper and works to protect and restore clean water and fish populations in the Rogue Basin.