Family Foresters Nervously Eye Possible New Logging Rules
The federal government has been telling Oregon for over a decade that its rules to protect threatened coastal salmon are not up to snuff. Now, the state is faced with a loss of federal dollars unless it gets with the program.
In response, the Oregon Board of Forestry is weighing whether to require timberland owners to leave more trees standing along streams to better protect fish habitat. And that’s got owners of small timber lands especially worried.
In Oregon, timber holdings under 5,000 acres are often described as “family forests,” as opposed to the large commercial forest lands owned by timber giants such as Plum Creek and Weyerhauser. And while the big guys are concerned about the possibility of new rules mandating larger forested buffers along streams, it’s the family foresters who are doing the most sweating.
Bill Arsenault is standing along a lush stream bank near Elkton, Oregon in Douglas County.
“This is Paradise Creek,” he says. “It drains the watershed here, about 12,000 acres.”
Bill and his wife Joan have owned this 277 acre parcel since 1971.
“It’s a large fish-bearing stream,” Arsenault says. “We have just about everybody in here: chinook, coho, steelhead and then native cutthroat.”
It’s the prospect of rules requiring larger buffers alongside streams — what’s called the “riparian zone” — that has small timberland owners like the Arsenaults worried. Arsenault says while relatively little of his property would be impacted by such a rule, there are family forest owners for whom as much as 25 percent of their land is already set aside for riparian protection.
“So, taking more property from us has real meaning,” he says. “Society expects us to foot the whole bill. There’s no compensation, even partial, for having taken our lands.”
Wider buffers mean leaving more valuable timber standing and small timber owners say such a rule would hit them disproportionately hard. At a meeting of the Oregon Board of Forestry in April, Rick Barnes, a Roseburg-based forestry consultant who owns timberlands of his own, explained that’s because family forests tend to be at lower elevations.
“Our streams are, on the average, larger, have more fish-bearing streams as a percentage and have a unique perspective and exposure to the riparian rules,” he says.
Barnes is also a member of the Committee for Family Forestlands, a group set up by the Board of Forestry to advise it on issues related to family forests. Barnes cautioned the board in April against adding to the regulatory burden.
“The family forestland owners already have significant challenges in making actively-managed forest economically viable,” he says. “Small forests that do not return an economic benefit are more likely to be converted to other uses and subject to fragmentation.”
The thing is, salmon, steelhead trout and other fish need cold water to thrive. If logging removes the trees near a stream, the lack of shade can make that water warmer. Is that a problem in Oregon? Mary Scurlock, who represents the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition, says there’s little doubt that it is.
“Oregon has in hand very clear monitoring evidence that we are not protecting cold water streams from harvest-related stream warming, in violation of the state’s water quality criteria,” she says.
The Oregon Stream Protection Coalition is a group of environmental and trade organizations that seeks stricter logging rules to protect fish habitat. Scurlock points to a study conducted by the Oregon Department of Forestry that found many private forestlands logged according to current rules still exceeded temperature standards set to protect fish.
As is often the case in environmental issues, the science is in dispute. Federal officials and environmentalists say there’s a clear need to leave more trees standing to keep steams cooler for the fish. But the timber folks say the studies leave important questions unanswered.
In 2002, researchers at the Oregon Department of Forestry began a nine-year study to figure out if logging activity was warming streams. They measured stream temperatures before and after timber harvest, on public and private land.
“Private sites, comparing pre- to post-treatment, had a greater frequency of exceedances,” says Peter Daugherty, head of the Private Forests Divsion.
When Daugherty says “exceedances,” he means stream temperature readings that went beyond state water quality standards. And he says streams on private timberland tended to exceed that standard a lot more often than those in state forests did.
“The probability of exceedances was 40 percent, where in all other categories, the probability of exceedance was about 5 percent,” he says.
According to the study, streams in private forests got as much as 4.5 degrees warmer after logging. The average increase was 1.25 degrees. In state forests, where more streamside trees had been left, there was no increase.
Known as the RipStream study, the report has become the basis for calls to require wider buffers along streams.
Scurlock says the RipStream study has pushed the Board of Forestry to consider stronger streamside protections.
“It provided a pretty clear and irrefutable basis for the finding, that even a board that is dominated by industry interests had to find that we have a problem, on the basis of that study,” she says.
Federal officials also see the science as pointing toward the need for Oregon to increase buffers as a protection for fish from warming streams and silt-laden runoff.
Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, says the study gives a clear direction. His group oversees salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act.
“What it tells us,” says Stelle, “is that if we put these improvements into place, there’s a high likelihood that we will be dealing directly with the temperature and sediment loading issues with a substantial degree of confidence.”
Along with the Environmental Protection Agency, Stelle’s office has been nudging Oregon for years to tighten rules on logging and other activities that can damage salmon habitat. In 2012, a court decision forced the federal agencies to crack down.
But folks in the timber industry say there’s no need for wider stream buffers. At the Board of Forestry meeting in April, the head of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, Jim James, disputed the science behind the state standard that says stream temperatures shouldn’t rise by more than half a degree.
“There’s also science that does indicate very strongly that the minor and temporary increase in temperatures cause no harm to fish species,” he says.
Barnes also says recent evidence that coho salmon numbers are up proves there’s no need for new stream protections.
But Stelle says increased salmon returns don’t tell the whole story.
“It doesn’t mean that you’ve got the kind of survivals that you need in the smaller streams and tributaries where they spend the early part of their life stages,” he says.
In the end, Stelle says, the scientific case for leaving more trees to keep streams cooler is sound.
The Board of Forestry is slated to decide in June whether to require larger streamside buffers or other measures.
An advisor to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has suggested the governor may be open to some kind of public subsidy to cushion the financial blow to family foresters.
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