Oregon rivers need modern forestry rules

By Tim Palmer

For The Register-Guard
DEC 11, 2014

Much attention has been given to Oregon’s federal forests and their multiple uses, from the spotted owl controversy of the 1980s, to the hard-earned restoration of salmon spawning habitat, to the O&C debate now raging. Yet 38 percent of Oregon forests are privately owned, and more than half of that belongs to industrial timber companies, with principally one goal in mind.
Understandably, that goal is to maximize profits by logging. But the consequences go far beyond money in the bank. The harvest of trees covering nearly one in five acres of Oregon’s forests has dramatic outcomes on the streams flowing through those lands. That water is owned by the state, which means all of us.

Even more important, industrial logging affects the waterways downstream — rivers and estuaries sustaining sport and commercial fisheries with their related jobs, food and recreation, plus drinking water to homes, towns and cities. A half-century of science has confirmed repeatedly that the steepness of logged slopes, the amount and type of road construction, the closeness of logging to waterfronts, and the intensity of both soil and canopy disturbance all govern how well our streams will be protected — or how severely they’ll be degraded. Those facts justify state government’s role in establishing and enforcing effective standards of harvest under the Oregon Forest Practices Act.

The problem here lies with “effective.” Oregon law and regulations allow cutting on slopes of any steepness — straight-up is not too much, except in specific places where public safety is known to be at risk. They permit logging within 20 feet of most waterways. They require no buffer whatsoever for small streams without fish. The rules sanction aerial spraying of herbicides within 60 feet of streams (as if the wind doesn’t blow), and the dousing of toxins directly on small streams (as if their water doesn’t flow into larger streams).

Analysis of the rules of surrounding states — even Idaho — found that all had substantially higher standards than Oregon.

To be fair, some logging companies —including giants as big as Weyerhaeuser — sometimes practice higher levels of performance. Others don’t. Modernized rules would level the playing field for all.

The effects of industrial logging cause streams to warm beyond acceptable standards of temperature — standards intended not for optimum water quality but to curb the grossest loss of habitat needed by native fish. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has long recommended that Oregon upgrade its regulatory program to protect stream temperatures, as other states have done.

With direct implications to its own forestry program, the State Department of Forestry’s RipStream study found that logging on industrial land caused a greater rise in water temperature than logging elsewhere with wider buffers. We’ve known that better buffers were necessary even before the state’s Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team recommended them to the governor back in 1999.

Recent analysis by Ph.D biologist Christopher Frissell, using the state’s own findings, indicated that no-cut buffers of at least 100 feet are needed to maintain stream temperatures. A hundred feet is not much, given 6 million acres of industrial forest land in Oregon. Uncut forest buffers shade the streams and keep them cool, stabilize banks with roots, and filter muddy runoff that’s headed toward the water from disturbed areas nearby.

This topic is timely because the Board of Forestry is considering upgrading its rules to require wider no-cut streamside buffers.

Other precautions are needed to prevent the spraying of herbicides on homes and people like what sickened residents of Cedar Valley near Gold Beach in 2013.

Additional measures, such as those required by Washington state to identify hazard zones, could minimize landslides that routinely damage salmon habitat. I personally saw this in 2012 when the entire “buffer strip” slid into the South Fork Coquille River and its choice chinook spawning beds after massive acreage was clearcut above the buffer. Despite outward appearances — hundreds of feet of shoreline reduced to an oozing quagmire the whole way upslope to the timber sale — the logging met compliance with regulations, according to state officials.

It’s time for Oregon to join the 21st century.

Action on the Board of Forestry’s current agenda won’t solve all the problems caused by irresponsible logging on industrial land, but it’s a step in the right direction to safeguard the streams, fish, wildlife, and water that are owned by us all.

Tim Palmer of Port Orford (www.timpalmer.org) is the author of “Field Guide to Oregon Rivers,” “Rivers of America” and other books.