J. Patrick Quinn
CHRONIC LOW SUMMER STREAM FLOWS AND WHAT WE AIM TO DO ABOUT IT
Umpqua Watersheds (UW), the South Umpqua Rural Community Partnership (SURCP) and other individuals and organizations in the wider Conservation Community, have long been concerned with the apparent depleted summer flows so much in evidence on watersheds in the Coast Range, on the West Slope of the Cascades and beyond. Needless to say, records show that anadromous fish runs were strong and varied before the vast conversion of primary old growth and mature forest to Douglas Fir plantations occurred, over decades, on millions of acres of forested lands public and private.
Anecdotally, we have heard long time area residents say that water well levels were higher and more persistent, and that many smaller streams ran all year, while river flows were colder, cleaner and higher during typical summer months, before so much of our native forests were liquidated.
Intuitively, we have long suspected a myopic adherence to the vaunted sustained yield paradigm, and its repeated and continuing clear cut imposition on the private industrial lands in the checkerboard of alternating ownerships, as being a significant factor in unnaturally low summer stream flows. Now, pouring salt into past environmental wounds, the BLM (including in our area the Roseburg and Coos Bay Districts), has begun, once more, to propose and offer timber sales, which would impose yet more large canopy openings on the public lands in this unfortunate “checkerboard” of alternating ownerships.
A New Paired Stream Study Published
In 2016, we received a preliminary copy of a seminal academic paper that collated and interpreted paired stream studies, of some 40 to 60 years duration, conducted by the USFS on the H.J. Andrews (Willamette NF) and the South Umpqua (Umpqua NF) Experimental Forests. After carefully reading the final iteration of this important paper, the Perry-Jones 2017 study, we at UW experienced what might well be called an “a ha!” moment.
Originating out of OSU, and based upon decades worth of hard USFS paired streamflow data, Perry-Jones 2017 shows, conclusively, that if the primary forest on a given watershed is converted to plantation at a rate of half or more, that watershed’s attendant stream, the “treated” stream, exhibits only 50% of the summer flow present on its unlogged “reference” stream. This alarming result was consistent across all of the stream pairs and harvest configurations included in the study, on both experimental forests. Perry-Jones indicates that this depleted summer flow is persistent in the data throughout its 40 to 60 year duration. How long it persists is as yet unknown, as longer running data, insofar as UW is aware, has yet to be acquired and made public.
Needless to say, the hydrological implications of Perry-Jones are dire and, as we and others fear, are very likely being felt region-wide, where so much of the primary forest has been liquidated and converted to monoculture, fiber farm plantations. Sadly, watersheds that have not been similarly subjected to this myopically applied sustained yield paradigm are few and far between. One needn’t look very hard or long in either Douglas or Coos Counties for graphic evidence of this condition. Repeated requests from UW and others to examine, recognize and address chronic summer low flows resulting from forest management practices have consistently been rebuffed by the BLM, while modest riparian improvements to the archaic Oregon Forest Practices Act are simply not enough to satisfy outstanding aquatic needs. Clearly, these beleaguered watersheds cry out for change.
In fact, we are convinced that the well supported implications of the Perry-Jones paper have the potential to effect significant and much needed change, landscape-wide. Indeed, we are convinced that they may well have powerful implications across all forest ownerships: federal, state and private industrial, going forward. After all, is it any wonder that a small-stream, cold water dependent species like the Oregon Coastal Coho Salmon is struggling to recover its past vigor and abundance, at the same time that a warm water interloper like the Small Mouth Bass continues to colonize rivers like the Coquille and South Umpqua? Moreover, in its most recent published plan for the recovery of Oregon Coastal Coho, NMFS identified habitat destruction in the uplands, especially timber management, as a continued impediment to the conservation and ultimate recovery of this benchmark salmon species. Low flow is very much a part of this restoration barrier.
And, as much as we are all deeply concerned with the impacts of chronic low summer flows on imperiled aquatic species, ESA listed or not, we must also be mindful of the constraints, over time, chronically depleted summer flows must impose upon human water needs as well: abundant clean, cold water for drinking, irrigation, industry and not least, recreation.
UW has had opportunity to bring this seminal science to the fore in several instances, and we have not hesitated to do so. UW’s comments and formal protests of the Daydream and Woodchuck Timber Sales (parts of the Days Creek-South Umpqua Harvest Plan) on sites barely thirty miles downriver from where a good deal of the Perry-Jones flow data was collected, as well as our comments, protest and appeal of the Semaphore Timber Sale (part of the Olalla-Camas Regeneration Plan) are still pending. In the case of Semaphore, and against strong opposition, UW has been granted formal standing to bring this appeal before the Interior Board of Land Appeals, in Arlington Virginia. To date, the BLM has denied that the well supported hydrological conclusions of Perry-Jones have any relevance to any of their extractive proposals, a denial UW strongly disputes.
WHAT WE ARE ASKING FOR
Umpqua Watersheds has been spreading the word and working hard to gather support for this effort from the regional Conservation Community. We feel that this seminal issue deserves to be heard by the wider public, and, if necessary, addressed in federal and state courts, as well. With that latter strong possibility in mind, we have reached out to such well known experts as Dr. Christopher Frissell, a freshwater aquatic ecologist of the first order, and Jon Rhodes, a hydrological expert of long experience and high standing, seeking professional science based confirmations of our strong surmise of a current and chronic low flow condition. An envisioned outcome of this research would be to firmly establish the relevance of the Perry-Jones conclusions to areas outside the boundaries of the two experimental forests, even region-wide. After all, how many of our regional watersheds have not seen widespread conversion of native forest to plantation over past decades? Few that we are aware of! How many landscapes within the western Oregon “checkerboard” are not scarred with new and recent private industrial clear cuts today?
Frissell and Rhodes estimate a cost of some $25,000 and a time frame of approximately eight weeks to accomplish the research requisite for making a powerful and convincing case to public land managers and, if necessary, before the federal (and perhaps state) judiciary, as well as in the all important court of public opinion. Three members of the UW Board of Directors have made a personal collective commitment of $4,000, intended as “seed money” in the effort to attract funding. We have been actively reaching out to various possible sources and remain hopeful that we can acquire the funds necessary to move this campaign forward. We ask for your support.
In the last issue and in this issue, we mention the considerable time and energy Umpqua Watersheds’ Conservation and Restoration Committee Chairs have invested in the effort to bring what we see as a chronically depleted summer flow condition in area streams and rivers to the attention of management agencies, the wider conservation community and the general public.
We also reported on the several protests and one appeal we filed against certain timber sales offered by the BLM. We have objected to yet more relatively large public land openings on watersheds already rife with large clear cuts on the intervening private industrial lands within the “checkerboard” ownerships. UW has cited a suite of harmful negative impacts to the high functioning of these natural systems. These are the legacy of a sad, decades-long history of the conversion of millions of acres of primary old growth and mature forests to corn row, monoculture plantations, across all ownerships. These environmental harms are repeatedly worsened, even magnified, by the short rotation clear cut, herbicide, fiber farm, forest road spider web, plantation system on lands owned and managed by “Big Timber”. We have emphasized the above-mentioned low summer flow depletion prominently in these protests.
UW’s referral of the Semaphore Timber Sale to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) remains in a holding pattern, as this is written. On the plus side, and against strong arguments made by a bevy of well supported attorneys representing the Department of the Interior Regional BLM, Seneca Jones, County Commissioners and others, I have been granted formal “standing” to bring this appeal, before that board on UW’s behalf. However, defying simple logic, the IBLA simultaneously denied our petition for a “stay” of the actual logging prescribed for Semaphore. This sale is comprised of what foresters euphemistically call “regeneration harvests.” While these public land versions of the infamous clear cut, do require some scattered green tree retention and riparian buffers that are far better than what may be seen following private land clear cuts, it is critical to recall the above-mentioned history of vast old growth extraction on these watersheds, and the actual current condition of the alternating private ownerships. We are convinced that it is a breach of the public trust, not to mention the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act for the BLM to proceed as planned.
We had hoped that the Semaphore logging would be postponed until after the rainy season, in the hopes that our appeal of Semaphore would prevail. However, a portion of that sale, Unit #5 has already been cut. In the decision document awarding the Semaphore to a subsidiary of the Seneca Jones Corporation, the Roseburg BLM declared this unit to be an 88 year-old stand. You may well imagine our shock and disappointment on seeing large, old growth trees among the stems cut and decked along the paved forest road that bisects Unit 5. Two representative logs we paused to carefully count rings on, totaled some 250 years! Please understand, there is never a valid ecological reason to cut old growth trees of this stature and importance. For reasons of human safety? Yes, perhaps. For the further financial enrichment of mill owners and others? Some might well say yes. To aid in the desperate need for restoration of ecological function on these beleaguered watersheds? Never!
Various districts of the BLM are under pressure to offer more of these relatively large canopy openings into the landscapes of the “checkerboard.” Coupled with this current threat to conservation and restoration, BLM’s new Regional Management Plan (RMP), has effectively halved the width of many of the riparian buffers instituted under the Aquatic Conservation Strategy (ACS) of the Northwest Forest Plan. The new RMP also allows the cutting of old growth/mature trees below 40 inches measured at breast height, and younger than160 years. (Umpqua Watersheds is currently an intervenor in a case before the Federal Judiciary, challenging the legitimacy of this regional plan.)
As if these diminished environmental protections were not harmful enough, retrograde legislation pending in the Congress insists on greatly increasing the allowable cut on BLM and USFS holdings, while also greatly expanding the acreage opened for extraction under what are called Categorical Exclusions (CE). These CE timber sales would be conducted mostly outside the NEPA and other regulatory processes, by which the public and their representative organizations provide input and, if need be, criticisms, protests and appeals of what they see as counterproductive public land management activities.
UW members and friends will recall that the 1937 O&C Act’s historically over-applied sustained yield extractive provisions have been, and continue to be, cited as reason enough to resume greatly increased logging on public lands in the Oregon Coast Range and West Slope Cascades. However, the O&C Act also insisted that our watersheds be protected, streamflows regulated and recreation provided for, across all ownerships. These, the ancillary “environmental” mandates of that dated legislation, are too often effectively ignored within the infamous checkerboard but, most definitely, they have not been congressionally removed from the language of the act. We at UW continue to highlight the degree to which they may have been circumvented by past, gross over-extraction of native forest across the watersheds of Western Oregon. We continue to insist that these ecological considerations, which were seen as environmentally necessary in 1937, are even more critical today.
Current extractive actions, on public and private lands, which we believe only add to the already degraded condition of so many of the streams and rivers of our watersheds coupled with the veritable tsunami of reactionary legislative threats emanating from the Trump Administration and its allies in the Congress, lend a good deal of urgency to UW’s conservation efforts, as well as to its proactive strategies. Prominent among these is our campaign to fund the research that will help to prove the widespread relevance of the long term low flow data acquired by hydrological scientists of the Forest Service, (Perry-Jones 2017 study, from OSU). Again, in this hour of increased threat to the priceless and already degraded watersheds we all call home, UW asks for your support.