Oregon’s private forests would do better shielding streams, wildlife under historic deal

After nearly a year of negotiations, timber companies and conservation groups reached new rules for how forestry would proceed while protecting at-risk animals.

By: - November 2, 2021 2:17 pm

Most of Oregon’s private forestlands are in the western part of the state in the Coast Range. (M.O. Stevens/Wikimedia Commons)

Beavers and salmon in Oregon could be the big winners over a new agreement expected to profoundly change how millions of acres of private forestland in Oregon are managed.

Conservationists and representatives from the timber industry negotiated until the wee hours of Saturday morning to agree on changes to the state Forest Practices Act. The act sets conditions for logging on private forests.

For industry, the new rules would mitigate risks that private forest owners and loggers could be sued under the Endangered Species Act. That provides timber operators more assurances about future operations and could spur continued investment in forestry and mill operations.

For conservationists, the changes would reduce pollution in thousands of miles of Oregon streams, improving habitat for wildlife and better protecting watersheds that can be sources of drinking water.

The Forest Practices Act was enacted in 1971 to more closely regulate the timber industry in the state. The anticipated changes to the act represent the first major update to logging regulations on private forests in the state since the mid 90s. 

They must be approved by the Oregon Legislature next year and would impact 10 million acres of privately held forests. 

Sean Stevens, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Oregon Wild said, “I think the conservation team feels strongly that this is a huge upgrade from where we’ve been.” 

The updates include stricter rules around where logging takes place in private forests, major upgrades to logging road networks and changes to the process for future discussions between conservationists and industry over forestry issues.

Adrian Miller is director of public affairs at Rayonier, a global forest products company that was involved in negotiations. 

“It’s not just about sort of setting a static set of regulations and saying, ‘We’re done, everything’s good,’” he said. “The parties have agreed to support changes, and how regulations are developed moving forward.” 

The conservation team included 13 representatives from organizations such as Oregon Wild, Wild Salmon Center and Portland Audubon. Timber representatives came from Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Forest Products, Oregon Small Woodlands Association, among others. 

Negotiations took 10 months, and involved intermediaries from Oregon Consensus, a public policy collaboration program, and representatives of Gov. Kate Brown. The governor was in meetings with all parties up until the 1 a.m. deadline Saturday and announced the deal later that day. 

The new rules will limit logging along rivers and waterways, especially where salmon and other fish live.

Areas off limits to logging for risk of triggering landslides on homes and humans would be expanded. If an area is deemed high-risk for landslides that could end up in a river, logging won’t be allowed. 

The rules require larger, untouchable buffer zones along rivers, so trees are always present, helping to keep down water temperatures. Trees that remain in the buffer zone also stop sediment from getting into rivers, and some naturally fall into the river, which is important for young salmon who use the fallen trees to hide. 

Miller said the most visible aspect of the changed Forest Practices Act to the public would be much wider forest buffers along rivers and streams, along with more modern road networks through private forests. The rules include a 20-year timeline to get all logging roads in private forests upgraded.

“They’re important infrastructure for forest landowners to be able to get our logs to market,” Miller said. “But they also are probably one of the areas where we have the most risk if they’re not managed well, in terms of potential sediment delivery to streams. Poorly constructed roads can fail and have impacts to water quality.”

New animal protections on private forests also extend to beavers. Commercial beaver trapping would no longer be allowed on large private forestland and non-lethal strategies for removing them would be prioritized. 

There would also be a mandate to report any beavers killed on private forestland to the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department, and a requirement to work with the department on relocating nuisance beavers that can block culverts and take down trees. 

The representatives from conservation groups and the timber industry were brought together by Brown after they’d launched dueling ballot initiatives in 2020. Conservationists intended to ask Oregon voters to impose tighter restrictions on the aerial spraying of pesticides in forests and the impacts of logging on waterways. The timber industry responded with ballot measures to compensate landowners when they lost logging revenue because of state regulations.

Brown asked both groups to negotiate changes to the Forest Practices Act before the February 2022 legislative session. 

If the revisions are approved by the Legislature, they would become the basis of an application for a Habitat Conservation Plan that would go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. They would evaluate Oregon’s forest practices system under this plan and confirm whether it complies with the Endangered Species Act. If so, it would protect private loggers from being sued under the Endangered Species Act.

Miller said that risk aversion, and the agreement that conservationists would continue to meet with his industry to discuss future regulations, is worth the costs of the new rules to private forest owners and logging companies.

“There’s no doubt there’s a significant financial impact to forest landowners as a result of this agreement.” Miller said. “Several companies, including my own, were at the table. And for those companies, we believe that the certainty that this process provides moving forward is worth the investment in these additional regulations today.”

Stevens of Oregon Wild said the conservationists didn’t get everything they wanted, but that’s to be expected.

“It’s a negotiation, both sides don’t get exactly what they want, but the referee is supposed to be the science and that should tell us what we need,” he said. 

Miller said conversations about the science will continue among the timber and conservation interests as more meetings to refine forestry rules are expected.

“Historically you’d have the environmental community having one set of science and industry having another set of science and we’d have that policy debate about risk and whose science is better and the like,” he said. “What we’re looking to avoid is that sort of dueling science, and to work collaboratively.”

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.