Cilde Grover braces herself with her cane as she ducks through a small arch in the pasture fence.
“Molly, come!” she calls out, as her dog bounds ahead and blurs into the forest in the misty distance.
Grover remembers wide open pastures on her family’s homestead near Brookings in Oregon’s southwestern-most corner. That was back in the 1950s and ‘60s, when she and her three sisters were growing up. But now the trees have the upper hand.
“I look around and I go ‘it’s closing in on me!’” she laughs, glancing around at the forest all around her.
Trees love it here and they grow fast. There are redwoods, myrtle and tan oak, but it’s mostly Douglas fir on the hills and in the pasture. As a tree farmer and member of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association Grover is always thinking about her trees.
“We sort of go back and forth trying to decide, do I take out big ones now and leave little ones and let them go? Or just take out little ones and let the big ones turn into bigger trees,” she explains, pointing to a stand in the old pasture that’s a mix of trees with different ages and heights.
While faced with these kinds of decisions, Grover’s also facing changes to Oregon forestry law.
The Oregon Board of Forestry is proposing a new streamside logging or “riparian zone” rule that would increase the protected areas around waters that are home to salmon, steelhead and bull trout. It also would require that more trees be left behind in these buffer zones to provide shade and keep the water cold. Salmon need cold water to thrive.
A short walk through the woods leads to Elk Creek. It’s not much wider than Molly is long. The dog splashes enthusiastically, paws deep.
This is one of two streams on Grover’s 230-acre property that would be affected by the rule. She says the rule will disproportionately affect small woodland owners over industrial timber owners.
“There’s more streams down here on my part of the property than there is way off up the hill,” she says, looking past her property to a steep hillside owned by Green Diamond Resource Company.
Grover says small woodland owners are more likely to have salmon, steelhead and bull trout streams because their property generally lower and flatter.
The result of the rule change would be fewer trees available to harvest and sell.
Grover says she’s much more politically liberal than most small woodland owners she knows. And she also considers herself an environmentalist, naming off all the birds, plants and trees as she passes them on her property.
“But I also really have problems with idea that based on a small bit of science, you can take private people’s land out of production without any compensation for it,” she says.
‘Small bit of science’
The science Grover refers to is 12 years of research and analysis on Western Oregon streams. It’s know as the RipStream study, and has been both domestically and internationally peer reviewed.
RipStream showed current stream protections on private timberland weren’t meeting the state’s own water quality standards. Brad Knotts of the Oregon Department of Forestry says humans aren’t allowed to increase a stream’s temperature by more than about a half degree Fahrenheit.
“The monitoring was showing [that] 40 percent of time, that was happening if someone harvested exactly to the current practices,” Knotts says.
But here’s the rub for fish: the new rules being considered by the Board of Forestry won’t meet the standards either. They’re not nearly restrictive enough. And they’re not nearly as robust as the current stream buffer requirements in Washington or California.
Modeling done by ODF shows that to be reasonably certain logging won’t cause stream temperatures to exceed that half degree increase, there needs to be close to 100 foot no-cut buffers on either side of a waterway.
Currently Oregon only requires a 20-foot no-harvest buffer on either side of fish-bearing streams. And then depending on the size of the waterway, there is an additional 30- or 50-foot area that can be thinned.
The new rule would apply to fewer streams overall — a subset of the fish-bearing waterways in Oregon. It doesn’t change the no-cut buffer. It does add 10 feet to the area that can be thinned.
“[The Board of Forestry] did not choose 100 ft. no-harvest buffers, they choose something short of that,” Knotts says.
That’s because the law say the cold water standard must be met “to the maximum extent practicable.” This clause allows the Board to step away from the science and to consider factors like economics in these decisions as well.
The proposed rules is expected to eliminate about 75 jobs per year statewide and about a half percent of the total private land timber harvest.
Subset of a subset
The other concern for salmon advocates is the new rules wouldn’t even apply to most of the state. Eastern Oregon isn’t included, and neither is the Siskiyou region in Southern Oregon between Ashland and Klamath Falls.
In November, the Oregon Board of Forestry met in Ashland and got an earful from environmental groups in Southern Oregon.
Stacey Detwiler, with the conservation group Rogue Riverkeeper, told the board the mountains should not be excluded from the proposed rule.
“We remain significantly concerned that our region will be left with a less-protective standard,” she said.
Earlier this year, the board decided to exclude the Siskiyou region because the original RipStream study was conducted along the Oregon coast. Board members reasoned the results of that study could not be fairly applied to other regions.
Timber owners support that approach. Conservation groups disagree.
“I think that sometimes, this idea that we have a lack of science or that there’s some uncertainty is used by those who are against increased regulation as a stalling tactic,” said Mary Scurlock of the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition, a group of environmental and fishing industry organizations.
Scurlock says the existing science is robust. And, she says, further delay in a process that’s already gone on for over a decade just keeps threatened fish at risk.
“It’s simply there’s nowhere to go. I mean, you can’t hide from the amount of information, it’s so overwhelming,” she said.
At the November meeting, the Board of Forestry did direct staff to come up with ideas for how to develop appropriate rules for eastern Oregon and the Siskiyous. That’s expected in mid-2017.
Depending on the approach the board decides to take, it could be several more years before new protections are put in place there.
Feds: not enough
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones who think Oregon’s proposed streamside rule comes up short.
A new Oregon coastal coho salmon recovery plan, finalized earlier this month by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), lays out a path to removing the salmon from the federal Endangered Species List within 10 years. This would remove significant red tape for the state and private timber interests alike.
But the coho plan points directly to the lack of teeth in the Board of Forestry’s proposed expansion of stream protections as a potential roadblock to meeting this goal:
“If the proposal is not significantly strengthened, NMFS will still be concerned that it doesn’t provide adequate protections, especially for shade … Because the November 2015 proposed buffers are less than 90 feet and allow harvest within the RMA, the proposal is not likely to meet the water quality standard.”
While coho recovery plan doesn’t carry the weight of a mandate that the Board of Forestry have to follow, Oregon is already getting pinged financially by the federal government for not protecting its streams.
In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees NMFS, pulled $2 million in annual federal funding from Oregon, saying its coastal water pollution rules didn’t adequately protect fish from logging impacts. NOAA oversees salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act.
NOAA West Coast Regional Administrator Barry Thom says the state’s proposed new standard wouldn’t be enough of an improvement to change minds at his agency.
“Given the scope of the rule, in term of the streams it covers, it’s hard to believe the rule moving forward is adequately protective of cold water,” he said.
Thom’s office has been nudging Oregon for years to strengthen rules on logging and other activities that can damage salmon habitat. He says Oregon’s efforts are a step in the right direction. But only a step.
“I think it’s gonna be a tough hill to climb to get over that bar, just given what’s been put forward so far.”