J. Patrick Quinn
“The emperor has no clothes!” the child famously exclaims while watching his majesty parade by in the buff, too innocent to know enough to imitate his elders, and say nothing. Our watersheds, in too many instances, have no clothes either. It is apparent to anyone who is able to explore the back country byways of our region. These private industrial timberlands are “slicked off” yet again. Their immature, even-aged Douglas-fir removed with scant green tree retention or snags remaining for the benefit of water quality, wildlife or viewing pleasure. However, we the members of Umpqua Watersheds, unlike the elders in the old fairy tale, do not enjoy the luxury of standing on the sidelines, these days, saying and doing nothing.
Interspersed with these virtual moonscapes, are the public lands mostly managed by the BLM. This infamous and most unfortunate “checkerboard” of alternating ownerships interacts with Forest Service lands, as well. In previous editions of the newsletter, we have written about the vast liquidation of primary old growth and mature forest that occurred under the vaunted banner of sustained yield on our public lands over the past decades. On BLM managed lands in Western Oregon, this annual average extractive volume converted just under one billion board feet from primary forest to plantations for more than three decades. On the BLM’s Roseburg District alone, between the years 1963 and 1993, reported timber sale quantities amounted to a total of 6,235,897,000 board feet. Over the same thirty year period, again just on the Roseburg District, this level of extraction left a reported 141,498 clear cut acres, and an additional 95,583 acres of partial cuts in its wake, so to speak, for a total of 237,081 acres thereby converted from primary forest to plantation or other stand initiation condition. This converted acreage represents more than half of the Roseburg District’s approximate 420,000 acre total! Over this same approximate time span, the average volume of old growth and mature forest clearcut or partial cut from the Umpqua National Forest amounted to 347,000,000 board feet annually. On the neighboring Willamette National Forest, nearly twice that annual average was liquidated each year for that approximate thirty year period. Clear cut extraction from private industrial timberlands was, and remains, comparable.
Given all that we know, here in the twenty-first century, about the importance of high-functioning watersheds to air quality, biodiversity, connectivity, carbon sequestration and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, and yes, aesthetics, it seems particularly ironic and disappointing to us, that the BLM is once again introducing their own version of clear cut logging into these put-upon landscapes. Called regeneration harvests or variable retention harvest, these amount to still more large openings on watersheds where even larger and more extreme private land clear cuts already abound. Far from helping to restore watershed function, these extractive proposals can only serve to make conditions worse. Perhaps this unfortunate likelihood is nowhere so ominous as in the area of stream flow. It is true that public land logging leaves riparian buffers that are far superior to what, if any, buffers are left along waterways following private land clear cuts. This comparison holds even under BLM’s new Regional Management Plan, adopted last year. Those BLM stream buffers have often been reduced in width by half.
Research obtained by the UW Conservation Committee (Perry and Jones, 2016, OSU) reflects fifty or more years of data recorded on the Willamette National Forest’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest and on the Umpqua National Forest’s South Umpqua Experimental Forest. Perry and Jones uses its acquired data to show definitively that on watersheds where primary forest has been converted to plantation at a rate of 50% or greater, summer low flow in “treated” streams remains at only 50% of dry season streamflow in their respective, untreated, reference streams. This impacted streamflow persists from about fifteen years following initial conversion to the present and beyond, a period of some fifty or more years so far. (Peak winter flows likewise remain outside the baseline norms, which were observed on those same respective reference streams, for some time.) To quote from Perry and Jones: “This study showed that, relative to mature and old‐growth forest dominated by Douglas‐fir and western hemlock or mixed conifers, forest plantations of native Douglas‐fir produced summer streamflow deficits within 15 years of plantation establishment, and these deficits have persisted and intensified in 50‐year‐old forest stands. Forest stands in the study basins, which are on public forest land, are representative of managed (including thinned) forest stands on private land in the region, in terms of basal area over time (Figure 3), age (10 to 50 years), clearcut size (20 ha), and average rotation age (50 years) (Lutz & Halpern, 2006; Briggs, 2007). There are no significant trends in annual or summer precipitation (Abatzoglou, Rupp, & Mote, 2014) or streamflow at reference basins over the study period. This finding has profound implications for understanding of the effects of land cover change, climate change, and forest management on water yield and timing in forest landscapes.” (emphasis, UW)
And: These “long‐term paired‐basin studies extending over six decades revealed that the conversion of mature and old‐growth conifer forests to plantations of native Douglas‐fir produced persistent summer streamflow deficits of 50% relative to reference basins, in plantations aged 25 to 45 years. This result challenges the widespread assumption of rapid “hydrologic recovery” following forest disturbance. Widespread transformation of mature and old‐growth forests may contribute to summer water yield declines over large basins and regions around the world, reducing stream habitats and sharpening conflict over uses of water.” (emphasis UW)
To our admittedly jaundiced eye, this revealing study flies in the face of claims long made by agencies and industry concerning streamflow recovery following clear cut conversion of virgin forest to plantation. In our estimation, this can only mean that we are now living with chronic low summer flows in those streams, where such old growth to plantation conversion has approached and often exceeded the above-mentioned 50% threshold. And, on how many of our beleaguered watersheds, has it not met or exceeded this lamentable metric? Logic suggests to us that this environmentally unacceptable condition has been so long in the making and so persistent, that very few among us are old enough to remember what healthy summer stream and river flows even look like.
It is well known that low stream flows during the summer months too often equate to higher temperatures, decreased dissolved oxygen levels, raised bacterial counts and even, as all reading this will painfully recall, extensive river closures during the hottest months of the year due to toxic blue-green algae blooms. Oregon DEQ Total Maximum Daily Load data for the South Umpqua and Coquille Rivers trumpet this fact year after year! If the Perry and Jones research paper is anywhere near as reliable as its high-quality, decades-long Forest Service data suggests, this puts the BLM well outside the parameters mandated by the Clean Water Act or well outside the injunctions made by the oft-cited 1937 O&C Act designated to protect watersheds, regulate streamflow and provide for recreation. Given its own management history, and the past and current practices on adjoining private timberlands, it is UW’s opinion that the BLM is out of specifications before it extracts enough trees to create even one more large opening in these basins. The UW Conservation Committee has made this informed opinion known to BLM, in no uncertain terms, in its formal protest of the Olalla-Camas Regeneration Harvest Plan, and in its comments to BLM on its Days Creek-South Umpqua Harvest Plan Environmental Assessment and FONSI. Stay tuned for further developments. After all, how can threatened and endangered fish runs ever be recovered in these degraded riparian conditions? They cannot!
As explained to the BLM’s Roseburg District, we at UW take no pleasure in staking out these necessary conservation positions. They know that we absolutely support public ownership and management of public lands. We have told them so often enough. That said, the UW Board of Directors feels that, given the long history of over-extraction of primary forest from public lands discussed earlier, alongside the ongoing clear cut degradation on the vast private industrial timberlands of the shared watersheds within the checkerboard, it has little choice but to speak up, on behalf of its membership, offering constructive comments when called for, and filing protests, however reluctantly, when necessary.
In an ideal world, all responsible parties: individuals, their local, state and national governments, management agencies and, yes, industry would be working together to conserve what is unspoiled and to begin active, widespread and effective restoration of seriously impaired watershed function across these common landscapes. Alas, present circumstances are not ideal. Adding insult to injury, members of the “conservation community” too often find themselves cast as the modern day equivalents of those lonely biblical voices crying in the wilderness.
Environmentalists are often unfairly blamed by opponents for such systemic societal maladies as drug addiction, alcoholism, broken families, bankrupt local governments, unemployment as well as for the current fire prone condition of many of our forested landscapes. As if 23 years of the Northwest Forest Plan were able to undo the impact of those decades wherein the concentrated, old growth wealth of many centuries was liquidated. Don’t believe it. As members of this society, we accept our share of the common responsibility for this condition. Others refuse to accept or even acknowledge the fallout from so much ill-considered primary forest destruction and instead clamor for still more and more.
Painted into a corner, we cannot then paint our way out. Conservation and careful restoration are the only environmentally, and yes ethically, sound palliatives appropriate for this chronic regional ecological illness. What is more, they are the only true long-term financial and social remedies that can, given the requisite hard work and necessary investment, effect a lasting cure.