KS Wild Side: A watershed moment for Oregon forests

Stream buffers are critically important for water quality. Trees in buffers shade streams to keep water cool in hot summer months, and act as a buffer against pollution such as sediment runoff that can harm aquatic resources. Photo by David Christian for KS Wild
January 18, 2022

We’d all breathe easier if the Private Forest Accord becomes law

By Joseph Vaile

Forests have been called the lungs of the earth. It makes sense: they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Streamside forests are maybe a bit like the veins of the Earth, delivering life-giving water across the land.

In Oregon and northern California, we have made strides over the last 25 years to better protect and manage forests and streams on public lands like National Forests. There is a lot more work to do, but federal forests are better managed today than in the past.

Joseph Vaile

Unfortunately, we have not made the changes needed on forests that are owned and managed by industrial timber companies. You can see the impacts of industrial logging on a tour in Oregon’s Coastal Mountain Range where forests are managed with clear cuts, aerial herbicide sprays, and densely replanted with a timber crop. Oregon private forest rules are the weakest on the West Coast and often allow logging right up to stream banks.

In late 2021, after nearly a year of intense negotiations between six conservation groups (including KS Wild) and six timber industry representatives, an unprecedented agreement known as the Private Forest Accord was reached. If enacted into law, this would be the most significant improvement in the Oregon Forest Practices Act since it was first passed in 1972.

The agreement could reshape safeguards for salmon and other aquatic species on more than 10 million acres of private forestland. This would be a huge step forward for climate-smart forestry, particularly in safeguarding the cold, clean water that Oregon’s wild fish will increasingly need in a warming world.

The accord covers many aspects of forest management, from leaving wider buffer strips along streams to protecting landslide prone areas. Forests along streams are critically important for three primary reasons. First, they shade streams in the hot summer months and keep water cool. Second, they act like a filter, preventing sediment pollution from entering streams from upslope logging activity. Lastly, large trees eventually fall into streams, creating critical stream habitat like pools that are needed by fish and wildlife.

Culverts at road crossings can damage aquatic habitats and lead to huge spikes in sediment pollution as the road washes into the stream. Too often culverts and other stream crossing structures prevent the passage of fish and other aquatic organisms from accessing stream habitat above a road. KS Wild staff photo

The accord also greatly improves road rules and requires that all roads allow for the passage of fish, benefiting aquatic ecosystems. Inadequate road crossings can create barriers to fish and other species, which can lead to a loss of access to habitat for fish to reach cold water where they spawn. The agreement requires the timber industry to upgrade their old stream crossings to ensure fish passage.

Oregon’s small forestland owners hold much of the best salmon habitat in their lowland properties. The accord helps ensure that these landowners are supported and given the resources and tools to manage their properties to benefit aquatic species with the creation of a new small landowner office. A new program will be developed to increase state subsidies for fish passage and road upgrades.

Even with these changes, there will continue to be impacts to aquatic habitat from forest management. The accord requires an annual commitment from landowners ($5 million) and the state ($10 million) to a 50-year fund to help improve habitat and protect water quality.

The accord will head to the state legislature in a short session this February to be codified into law. There will be further rulemaking and a plan will be developed to present to federal fish and wildlife agencies to guide conservation of at-risk fish species.

Simply put, the Private Forest Accord is a huge deal for Oregon’s forests. It is a giant step forward to better protect Oregon’s forests and streams. Forests — the lungs of the planet — can breathe a little easier if the accord passes the Oregon legislature.

KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from KS Wild, a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Joseph Vaile is the Climate Director and was a part of the conservation negotiation team for the Private Forest Accord. For more information, go to kswild.org.

Healthy streams are dynamic and complex environments, with diverse trees providing shade, pools for fish and wildlife, and large wood that falls into streams creating side channel habitats. KS Wild staff photo

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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