- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - A state board is considering how much to increase the numbers of trees that must be left standing along small and medium streams on private timberlands to shade the water and keep it cool for salmon.

A study known as RipStream has shown logging buffers on small and medium-sized streams under the Oregon Forest Practices Act don’t do enough to maintain shade, allowing water temperatures to rise more than twice the standard of 0.54 degrees set by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.

The choice for the Oregon Board of Forestry, which is scheduled to vote Thursday in Salem, is that the more trees left standing, the better the chance of meeting the temperature standard, but the lower the profits for timberland owners. The board has the latitude to weigh the economic costs against the ecological costs.

Current rules set buffers of 20 feet, with logging allowed within them. Buffers up to 100 feet are being considered. If they were imposed throughout western Oregon streams with salmon, steelhead and bull trout, private timberland owners could lose up to $227 million in land and timber values, according to the Department of Forestry.

The action is part of a larger battle over the Oregon Forest Practices Act. When it was first enacted in 1971, it made Oregon a leader in protecting fish, wildlife and water on private timberlands, but it has since fallen behind logging rules in Washington, Idaho and California.

While federally owned forests account for 60 percent of forest lands in Oregon, they contribute only 14 percent of the statewide harvest of 4.13 billion board feet because of restrictions on harvests to protect fish, wildlife and water. Privately owned forests account for 34 percent of the land, but with larger clear-cuts and smaller stream buffers allowed, they account for 64 percent of the timber harvest.

Federal regulators ruled in January that Oregon logging rules do not sufficiently protect fish and water in western Oregon from pollution caused by clear-cutting too close to streams, runoff from old logging roads, landslides and sites sprayed with pesticides.

NOAA Fisheries Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been in a long-running negotiation with Oregon over meeting the standards of the federal Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Program. At stake are millions of dollars in federal grants. The state has said it hopes to be in compliance by the end of 2016.

Conservation groups want the board to take major steps to expand logging buffers to protect threatened and endangered salmon, but they are not optimistic. Some are preparing to go to the Legislature for a major revision of the act, which regulates the size of clear-cuts, stream buffers, road-building, replanting and pesticides.

“It looks to me right now like they are only going to address a very small subset of Oregon streams in need of protection from stream warming,” environmental consultant Mary Scurlock said. “I think that this rulemaking at ODF will probably demonstrate and be Exhibit A for the need for statutory change, because it is like pulling teeth to get the board to adapt its rules even when both the problem and the solution are plain to see.”

The timber industry argues the board can meet its legal obligations without major changes, and any warming goes away as trees grow back.

“The RipStream study did clearly show a minor and temporary increase in stream temperature when you remove the maximum number of trees you can remove under the rules,” said Jim James, executive director of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association. “The scientific standard shows a minor temperature increase isn’t a big deal, and could be beneficial to fish.”

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