By Alex Paul

Albany Democrat-Herald

SALEM — State Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, says her goal in co-sponsoring House Bill 2656 was to “start a conversation” among timber and logging companies about their role in protecting watersheds and ultimately climate change.

She succeeded.

The bill — which would affect about 1 million acres, primarily in Western Oregon — would require companies to get permission from the Department of Forestry before implementing logging operations “on forestland that is a drinking water source.” The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, also would curtail aerial applications of pesticides and herbicides on those lands, as well as new logging road construction.

At a recent hearing on the bill, more than 100 representatives of timber and logging companies joined the conversation, testifying that the bill has the potential to increase wildfires and could cause serious economic harm to the timber industry and the rural Oregon communities it supports.

Bill supporters say clear-cutting and aerial spraying can increase contamination of watersheds statewide, especially for several communities along the Oregon Coast.

“It seems to me that we have been leaving timber out of the equation,” Salinas said. “What is timber’s carbon footprint? What can we do to reduce greenhouse gases? I think we should do everything we can to change the problem.”

Some of the testimony at the recent hearing tied last summer’s toxic algae bloom at Detroit Reservoir to logging operations within the watershed, but Salinas said she has not drawn that conclusion, nor has she seen any data from the Department of Environmental Quality that does.

In fact, according to long-term studies by the DEQ, streams and rivers in watersheds that are primarily forests have the lowest amounts of pollution in the state. The most contaminated streams and rivers are near urban areas.

But Salinas said clear-cutting and other logging activities can lead to increased water turbidity and lower summer stream flows.

“Let’s start the conversation and move forward,” Salinas said. “We do know the forest industry wants to be sustainable.”

Salinas said the next step is to “let people know I’m willing to talk about this. We need to gather folks around the table. I don’t know your industry. What can we do to help you have a sustainable industry and to help our watersheds?”

As of Friday, the bill remains before the House Committee on Energy and Environment. No further hearings have been scheduled.

Protecting watersheds

Supporters of the bill say the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which has regulated logging procedures on both government and private lands since 1971, does not go far enough in protecting families from potentially harmful chemicals and lags behind other states.

Gregory Haller, executive director of the conservation group Pacific Rivers, noted that some 163 Oregon communities get their drinking water from surface wells and 50 coastal communities are dependent on watersheds in which the majority of land is privately owned forestlands.

Haller said that reducing clear-cutting and the use of chemicals in forest practices ultimately reduces water filtration costs for downstream communities, reduces sedimentation from forest roads and leads to decreased use of chlorine needed to disinfect water. He said chlorine in high concentrations can be carcinogenic.

Haller noted that the owners of small timber tracts usually do not clear-cut large amounts of timber and also tend not to use aerial spraying.

“The real targets of this legislation are the large multinational corporations (the Wall Street foresters) that own the bulk of the forestlands in Oregon,” Haller noted.

Haller noted the basis for HB 2656 is that “access to clean drinking water is a basic human right.”

Like Haller, Rhett Lawrence of the Sierra Club believes the Oregon Forest Practices Act lags behind other states. Lawrence provided written testimony at the public hearing.

“It is undeniable that clear-cutting, logging roads and application of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers on forest lands can have major impacts on drinking water sources in our state,” Lawrence noted. “Last year’s shutdown of the Salem drinking water system due to a toxic algae bloom is but one example of how our forest practices are impacting Oregonian’s daily lives.”

Ashley Short of the Tualatin Riverkeepers also submitted testimony in favor of the bill, due in part to concerns about potential water quality issues at Henry Hagg Lake, which flows into the Tualatin River.

Short noted that some 400,000 people get their drinking water from the river.

“The Safe Waters Act (as House Bill 2656 is known) would protect drinking water sources like Henry Hagg Lake from the associated forestry impacts such as increase sediment flow, thermal pollution and pesticides and herbicides entering the reservoir,” Short said. “As the climate changes, water is going to become scarcer, making it imperative that we do everything that we do everything we can to protect the drinking water sources we have.”

Short, who has been with Tualatin Riverkeepers since December, said in a telephone conversation that in recent years there have been several clear-cuts in the watershed that serves Henry Hagg Lake. He said aerial photos indicate that some of those clear-cuts were close to water sources and that clear-cuts potentially could affect water quality, but he noted that Tualatin Riverkeepers does not have data indicating possible pollution levels in the lake at this time.

Forest Practices Act

Officials with the state Department of Forestry remained neutral on the merits of the bill itself but took issue with arguments from the bill’s supporters that the Forest Practices Act increasingly is ineffective.

Kyle Abraham, deputy chief of the Forest Division of the Oregon Department of Forestry, said there have been many changes to the Forest Practices Act over the years and it remains a viable and successful program.

“The Oregon Department of Forestry did not take a position on this bill, but some of the people who are supporting it and challenging the Forest Practices Act are not looking at it in conjunction with Oregon’s land use laws and voluntary measures undertaken within our watersheds,” he said. “They also may be looking at wider buffer strip requirements in Washington and Idaho, but in Oregon, our buffers vary by stream classification and whether those streams are fish-bearing or not.”

Abraham added that the Oregon Board of Forestry also recently increased buffer sizes on salmon-bearing waterways.

Abraham said Oregon’s three-tiered approach of Forest Practices Act regulations, state land use laws and voluntary measures, “produce the best outcomes in our state in terms of water quality and maintaining our forest lands. We have high water quality compared to other states. Some 75 percent of our waterways are considered good to excellent condition.”

He noted a possible unintended consequence of the bill: If companies convert their forest lands to other uses, he said, there’s a good chance that water quality will decline as a result of those other uses.

Industry reaction

Longtime timber industry workers have assailed the bill as unnecessary and potentially devastating to the industry.

“There is no scientific justification for the restrictions outlined in HB 2656,” according to Jim James, executive director of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association. “If anyone tells you so, they are either misinformed or have not spent the time to scientifically evaluate Oregon’s Forest Practice Laws and their effectiveness in protecting water quality in Oregon’s forests. As a lifelong forester, I am proud of how the Oregon Forest Practices Act protects water quality.”

James said passage of HB 2656 would:

• Decrease the value of family forests. He said restrictive regulations force landowners to move away from timber production to other crops such as vineyards.

• Make forests more prone to catastrophic fires.

• Negatively affect Oregon’s wood products industry, which is a vital source of family-­wage jobs, especially in rural communities.

• Ban herbicides, which are critical in controlling invasive species such as Scotch broom, Himalayan blackberries and Japanese knotweed.

Milt Moran, president of Cascade Timber Consulting in Sweet Home, has spent 46 years in the timber industry. He manages 145,000 acres of timber in Linn County, from the Brownsville area to the crest of the Cascade Range.

Moran said that HB 2656 would be “a damaging piece of legislation for our industry. Clean water is a product of managed working forests.”

In written testimony, Gary Springer of Starker Forests in Benton County noted that HB 2656 would affect about 1 million acres of forestland, including the entire Willamette River watershed.

Springer said Starker Forests owns and manages 89,000 acres in Benton and nearby counties.

“Acres under our ownership that would be restricted by this draconian bill total approximately 68,000 … about 77 percent of our total ownership,” he said, and termed the bill “a misguided solution in search of a problem that does not exist.”

Peter Sikiora, CEO of Springfield-based Giustina Resources — which manages land near Sweet Home — noted in written testimony that although privately owned timberlands compose just 36 percent of total forested acres in Oregon, they produce more than 75 percent of the state’s lumber.

He added that private timber companies also create more than 61,000 jobs with an average annual wage of more than $50,000.

Clear-cutting

Other forest experts said the bill fails to take into account instances in which clear-cutting can be an important management tool.

Mike Barsotti, who spent his career with the Department of Forestry, lives near Lyons and is the president of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association. He and his wife own a 20-acre multiage tree farm that includes primarily Douglas fir stands, along with some cedar and “one oak tree.”

Their trees range in age from 30 to 70 years old.

“This past year I clear-cut a portion of my forest, sending 45 loads of logs to local sawmills, built and rocked a road and used herbicides to control two invasive species, Himalayan blackberries and Scotch broom,” Barsotti said in written testimony. “All three of these activities would be prohibited under this bill, as my property is in the North Santiam watershed that supplies drinking water to Salem and Stayton.”

Barsotti said his harvest project did not negatively affect water quality, yet it created “a forest opening for a number of wildlife species” including nesting habitat for songbirds.

Barsotti and other timber owners and managers testified that Douglas fir trees do not grow well in shaded areas.

His sentiments were echoed by professional forester Brian Murray of Sweet Home, who works for Cascade Timber Consulting and owns a small tree farm.

“Douglas fir is a sun-loving and not a shade-tolerant species,” Murray noted. “Today, clear-cuts provide the framework by which people can benefit through the harvest of sustainable resources while delivering the optimal conditions for a new stand to regenerate. Approximately four seedlings are replanted for every merchantable tree that is harvested. This equates to about 450 trees per acre.”

Forests grow well after thinning stands that are about 20 to 25 years old, but selective logging Douglas fir would not be successful because replacement seedlings would not grow well due to lack of sunlight, water and nutrients, Murray said.

Murray and others noted that HB 2656 could wind up creating forests that mimic federal lands, which in recent years have experienced devastating wildfires.

Moran, of Cascade Timber in Sweet Home, said implementation of HB 2656 could lead to devastating wildfires that “produce excessive greenhouse gases.” Healthy forests are less prone to fires, Moran said, because fuels are managed and roads provide greater access to fires in their early stages, at ground level instead of after fire has entered tree crowns.

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