By Tamsin Fleming, Advocacy and Campaign Intern
April 23, 2021
O regon’s North Coast forests are incredibly important to the States’ environment, as well as the timber industry, recreationists, and surrounding communities. These forests’ recreational value, coupled with their environmental benefits, such as filtering water, shading streams and providing habitat are just as important as their value as timber. As the State embarks on developing a plan to guide how they are managed for the next 70 years, it’s important to protect endangered species habitat and their recreational value for sportfishing and hiking.
The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) manages state-owned forests with a vested interest in generating revenue for the Common School Fund by harvesting timber. Tasked with balancing various conservation and recreation values, the state has the duty of continually regenerating forests and harvesting trees while protecting soil, air, water, and fish and wildlife.
To protect the streams and rivers within these forests while balancing the long-term need for revenue, ODF has drafted a plan to provide long-term stability for these often competing forest uses. The proposed Western Oregon State Forest Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) covers roughly 85% of state-owned forests throughout the state, 640,000 acres, in several counties, especially vast majorities of Tillamook and Clatsop counties.
The draft HCP allows ODF to harvest timber on almost half of the area, while also defining conservation strategies to minimize risk of harming endangered species or their habitat, including at-risk coastal salmon and steelhead populations. Under the plan, a variety of common forest management and harvest activities are allowed, including intensive harvesting and clearcuts, spraying pesticides and fertilizers, building and vacating roads, and managing fire risk.
When not effectively managed and monitored, these practices can have adverse effects on habitat integrity and fish populations. To avoid potential negative impacts, ODF has proposed to set aside roughly 47% of the plan area (~300,800 acres) as Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs). These areas have special protections: required passive management near riparian areas; limited road construction and intensive tree removal; and prioritized conservation of the oldest, largest trees.
Most importantly for the angling community, the HCP proposes setting aside 12% of the plan area (~77,000 acres) into Riparian Conservation Areas (RCAs) to protect water quality and habitat in fish-bearing and many non-fish bearing streams. These RCAs have the largest stream buffer protections we’ve seen in any other federal salmon management plan in the region thus far: prohibiting harvest within 120 feet to increase shading, large wood and gravel recruitment, and nutrient input and prevent erosion. In addition, ODF explicitly commits to completing a variety of conservation actions to enhance and protect habitat quality ranging from decoupling roads from hydrology to replacing half of the culverts that currently limit fish passage through the watershed. Even better, almost half of the RCA area overlaps with HCAs, awarding them the additional HCA protections.
While the draft plan includes a variety of strong salmon protections, a number of groups are already raising concerns in response to the draft. Most commonly, communities are concerned about impacts to downstream drinking water quality and whether the draft includes adequate endangered species protection and forest preservation.
Meanwhile, the timber industry and rural communities have voiced concerns about the effects of restricting harvest from roughly half the area. However, given that the goal of the plan is to provide long-term certainty and stability about wood availability, we believe this plan will sustain logging opportunities and ease on-going conflict between the timber and conservation community, which often result in lawsuits and emergency closures. The plan will ensure a dependable amount of harvestable timber into the future, and subsequently, more certainty surrounding revenue generation for the communities that benefit from these harvests.
Over the next year, the draft HCP will go through two public processes to determine its final contents. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process will ensure the resulting plan does not jeopardize endangered species or their habitat. Concurrently, the State will develop a Forest Management Plan (FMP) to define the specific forest management practices that align with the HCP goals and strategies.
ODF’s draft plan is strong, but some areas require further refinement through these public processes. For example, although upland forested areas are incredibly important for filtering water and providing nutrients, these areas seem to have few logging protections in the current plan. Considering the steep slopes of the North Coast and the area’s extensive fire history, we believe there should be more upland protections to reduce the risk of additional erosion.
We are also concerned about ODF’s proposal to build up to 5 times more roads than they will decommission, especially considering the thousands of miles of legacy roads that already traverse the area. Roads and road construction are known to increase the frequency of landslides, fine sediment deposition and alter stream hydrology, all of which can negatively affect salmon habitat and water quality. In addition to ODF’s strategy to decouple the road system from rivers, we think it’s important that they establish a specific road density goal that they want to work toward so we can monitor and track their progress.
The HCP provides an opportunity to protect our forests and at-risk salmon populations for the next 70 years - it has to include strong salmon habitat protections. We will need your help over the coming year to stand up for salmon and water quality protections against the powerful timber industry that opposes these measures.
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