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Forestry board widens no-cutting zone along streams, but critics say it wasn't enough



COURTESY: FRANCES EATHERINGTON  - This land owned by Weyerhaeuser west of Roseburg shows a typical riparian zone protected from logging, in a fish-bearing tributary of the Coos River.For salmon that live in the mountains of Western Oregon, the Oregon Board of Forestry recently delivered what seemed like good news — expanding the no-timber-cutting zone along rivers.

In the most significant change in Oregon’s forest practices regulations in two decades, the forestry board voted on Nov. 5 to widen the buffer zone along rivers by 10 feet, which should double the number of trees left uncut.

But leaders of Oregon environmental groups say the board’s decision falls far short.

“Oregon’s salmon and steelhead need more protection,” says Mary Scurlock, coordinator of the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition comprising 23 conservation and fishing groups.

Biologists have long known that logging clear-cuts harm salmon habitat, and that overly aggressive logging practices have been behind the decimation of many Northwest salmon runs.

COURTESY OF OREGON STREAM PROTECTION COALITION - This aerial shows the Smith River along the Oregon Coast. In 1997, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed Oregon’s coastal coho salmon as threatened, due in large part to logging on private lands. Logging right next to rivers is especially harmful to fish, which is why regulators have required loggers to preserve narrow bands of uncut trees along streams, often known as riparian zones.

The main benefit of riparian trees is their shade, which has a cooling effect on water temperatures. Under prior Oregon forestry rules, the no-logging riparian zones had to be from 20 to 70 feet wide, depending on the size of the stream and whether it has fish or not.

But streams in the Coast Range have been found to consistently violate Clean Water Act standards for temperature, and Oregon’s Forest Practices Act requires that the state’s logging rules meet those standards. The Oregon Department of Forestry’s own research shows that buffers need to be about 100 feet wide to keep the water cool enough to be healthy for salmon and meet the standards.

“The science clearly shows more than 100 feet is needed to be really confident that we are complying with the Clean Water Act,” Scurlock says.

Bob Van Dyk, of the Wild Salmon Center, says Oregon’s forest rules to protect salmon lag far behind its neighbor in Washington state. “It’s time for us to catch up to the science-based rules Washington state passed 15 years ago,” Van Dyk says.

Mike Cloughesy, the Oregon Forest Resources Institute director of forestry, says logging causes only a “slight” increase in river temperatures. He says the benefit of having wider buffers than those prescribed by the Board of Forestry would be only minor, but the cost to logging companies would be “in the millions.”

The forestry board’s rules apply only to small or medium fish-bearing streams that support salmon, steelhead or bull trout, and not the smaller headland tributaries that feed into these streams. The rules apply only to privately owned timberlands of Western Oregon except for the Siskiyou region of Southwest Oregon, which are dealt with under a separate rule.

Besides their cooling effects, riparian buffers improve river habitat by reducing runoff from pollutants, supplying woody debris that salmon use for habitat structure, and retaining flood flows and sediment.

Salmon thrive best in temperatures ranging from 53 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit, but in many Oregon streams the temperatures are much warmer.

Coho salmon, the salmon species most commonly found in coastal streams, prefer to spawn when the water temperature is below 61 degrees. Their eggs suffer at temperatures above 70 degrees. Temperatures above 78 degrees are lethal. By definition, streams that are warmer than these benchmarks violate the state’s water temperature standards.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reports that 7,732 miles of river in the Coast Range fail to meet the temperature standard. The habitat in these streams is not ideal for salmon when they spawn, migrate or just hang out.

It’s not clear how many of these river miles will be brought into compliance under the new standards. Rules enforcing this decision have yet to be written, and will be subject to public review.

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