Timber and rivers in the 33rd state

Timber and rivers in the 33rd state

(Eighth in an eight-part series on the history and successes of Pacific Rivers)

— by Mary Scurlock —

I have been working with Pacific Rivers to protect clean water and rivers from outdated forestry practices for about 25 years. In Washington, the changes have been promising, and the impact to the forest industry minimal. In Oregon, it’s a different story.

On Washington’s state and private forests, the state has approved a plan that attempts to keep rivers and water clean and maintain wildlife habitat, as required by federal law. While conservationists doubt the protections are sufficient enough to truly protect clean water and wildlife, most agreed not to sue under the new plan because the changes were significant and pretty close to sufficient.

In other words, conservation groups compromised because it was better than nothing, and better than constant lawsuits.

Crossing the river into Oregon, we have close to nothing. There have been virtually no changes in state logging rules since 1971. There are also virtually no lawsuits.

What does Oregon have? Logging on steep slopes, logging next to streams, unstable logging roads, and sediment in streams and rivers muddying everyone’s water, including drinking water for most Oregonians. It’s not that we didn’t try in Oregon. But the political realities are different when it comes to logging state and private forests in Oregon and Washington.

In Washington, the state forestry chief is elected, and thus accountable to the voters. In Oregon, the chief is appointed by the governor. Washington’s leaders, driven by the electorate, were interested in ensuring logging on state and private forests actually complied with federal laws to protect clean water and wildlife. Oregon’s leaders have been less willing to compromise, and Oregon’s forestry board has remained insulated and industry led.

Notably, Washington’s timber industry remains viable under these new, modern logging rules.

The size of reform in Washington was significant. Washington’s new logging rules improve water quality by reducing logging on steep slopes, encouraging safe ways to build logging roads, removing old logging roads, and providing buffers so logging does not occur near streams. Conservationists wanted more protections for small streams, especially given that so many people get their drinking water from these watersheds, but like I said. Compromise.

The Washington plan was hailed as a model. Westerners of all stripes watched as Washington’s forestry chief, forestry board, timber industry, fishing groups, environmental groups, and recreationists hashed out details. But in the end, not one other state has followed Washington’s model.

Oregon is different. Oregon wanted to do things its own way via the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. But the Oregon Plan does not sufficiently protect clean water and wildlife. Sometimes being different is great. Embrace your individuality. But you still have to follow the law. Currently, Oregon’s state forest rules do not comply with national laws protecting clean water and wildlife. And the state knows it.

So why not sue? We could sue the state, or we could sue individual landowners. Suing individual landowners would be cumbersome and expensive. And we tried suing the state for not doing enough to protect water quality for threatened coho salmon. Eventually, though, in the early 2000s, the Pacific Rivers Council found itself in a new environmental non-profit era: The era of no lawsuits. While litigation has proven to be the most powerful, least expensive, and most efficient way to gain real protection of our beloved open spaces, wild places, clean water and wildlife, litigation is no longer popular or easily funded. Collaboration is trendy. And collaboration truly is a powerful and useful tool, but to fully protect watersheds, we need all the tools in our toolbox, including litigation.

So here we are. The year is 2015. The place is Oregon. The state forestry board continues its brigand style of management on state and private forests. Oregon holds fast to its Don’t Tread On Me ideology. Coho salmon remain threatened with extinction. Water is sullied with sediment, harming local health and economies. And the drive to the Oregon Coast remains littered with clearcuts. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.

Mary Scurlock is currently the coordinator of the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition and was formerly on staff with Pacific Rivers.

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