An Oregon Logging Impacts Profile for 2020

Nearly half of Oregon is forested. Forests filter our drinking water, provide habitat for unique and threatened species, countless opportunities for recreation, and play a critical role in sequestering carbon and storing it safely in the ground. Every year, Oregon’s forestlands are degraded by tens of thousands of acres of industrial logging operations that drive climate change and extinction and make the land more susceptible to severe wildfires and water shortages. Through its FERNS system, Oregon Department of Forestry maintains an online database that enables users to determine the location, timing, and extent of all logging operations in the state. This week, the Center for Sustainable Economy released this fact sheet, which combines data through June 3rd 2020 from the FERNS system with geographic information system (GIS) map layers to spotlight anticipated impacts of this year’s planned and ongoing logging projects. This year so far, 85,327 acres of clearcuts are planned on state, private and federal lands in Oregon.

By far, the worst management practices happen on private and state lands, where rampant clearcut logging is the norm and few protections are in place to safeguard waterways and habitat for important species. These lands are typically managed on a short 30-50 year cut-and-replant rotation that depletes forest-water supplies, deteriorates water quality with increased sedimentation and toxins, threatens imperiled species who depend on forest ecosystems, and compromises the health and integrity of biotic systems that we all rely on.

The most destructive logging practices happen on private and state land clearcuts, but old forests on federal public lands also are also targeted. Currently, 79,214 acres of the proposed clearcuts in the state are on private lands, which account for about 34% of Oregon’s total forests. 4,333 acres of clearcuts are planned on state land, which accounts for only 4% of total forestland in Oregon. 1,479 acres of clearcuts are planned on federal BLM and National Forest federal lands, which account for 60% of Oregon forestland.

While distinguished from clearcuts in the FERNS system, thinning projects can range widely from minimal selective logging to revenue-driven projects that come far closer to clearcuts.  So-called “regeneration harvests” are common thinning practices on federal lands, where managers can choose to log over 95% of trees in a stand while still not calling it a clearcut. While the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management claim that these are not as destructive as clearcuts, forest defense activists argue that there is little meaningful difference between the two.

Between federal, state and private and, an additional 225,153 acres are proposed for partial thinning in the state of Oregon this year.

This ongoing practice of revenue-driven industrial logging on forestlands contributes to the intersecting problems of drought, rising stream temperatures, habitat loss, eroded drinking water supplies, and carbon pollution, that will only be exacerbated by a changing climate.

Below is a breakdown of these ongoing problems with the most recent updates on the status of these issues today.

 Carbon:

Oregon forests are among the best in the world at pulling carbon from the atmosphere and safely storing it in the trees and forest floor. Sadly, compared to the carbon dense and ancient forests that once dominated the state, heavily clearcut and young plantation forests sequester and store far less carbon and are far more vulnerable to the long-term effects of climate change. Each year, clearcut logging practices account for the number one source of carbon emissions in the state of Oregon, accounting for more CO2 emissions than wildfires and one and a half times more than the transportation and energy sector emissions combined[1].  Net ecosystem productivity (NEP) – sequestration by young seedlings and brush minus emissions from decay and combustion of logging residuals – is negative for 13 years after clearcutting, meaning that these clearcut lands will not only carbon sequestration dead zones but net emissions.

Water Quality and Quantity:

Clearcut-plantation style logging is devastating Oregon’s waterways. Today 50,991 acres of clearcuts and 79, 096 acres of commercial thins are planned in municipal drinking water supply areas, and countless more in the water sources of rural families who get their water off-grid. For decades, the timber industry has degraded public drinking water supplies and against the backdrop of a changing climate, these activities are a mounting threat to future water security for Oregonians living within the patchwork of private lands clearcuts.

The practice of clearcutting has been linked directly to problems for water quality and water water quantity.  Watershed studies found that water supplies are reduced by 50% or more during the dry reason as a result of the ongoing conversion of healthy forests to tree plantations[2].

State and federal agencies have found that clearcut-plantation style forest practices also raise water temperature with a Department of Forestry model concluding that a typical clearcut on average boosts water temperatures by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, on top of any background increase due to climate change.[3]  The combination of reduced water supply, rising stream temperatures, and contamination with chemical agents cause “harmful algal blooms to occur more often, in more waterbodies and to be more intense.”[4]

 Toxic Chemicals:

Aerial spray of herbicides is a typical practice on private and state forest lands. After clearcutting, mixtures of herbicides including known carcinogens 2,4-D and glyphosate and endocrine disruptors such as atrazine, are sprayed by helicopter over the landscape to prevent competition for the newly planted monocrop of Douglas Fir.

As a result of Oregon’s weak private and state land logging laws that require a meager 100 ft buffers between aerial chemical spray and public drinking water sources, toxic drift of chemicals into community drinking water supplies is all too common. In the past decade, studies have confirmed the presence of atrazine, 2,4-D and other types of herbicides in the urine of Oregonians, due to ongoing aerial spray practices near drinking water supply areas[5].  This year efforts have been advanced to aerial spray buffers for waterways and ensure early notification of spray for neighbors through a compromise between conservation organizations and timber industry leads. Still, rural Oregonians continue to experience toxic exposure to herbicides sprayed on industrial clearcuts across the state.

Old Growth Dependent Species

Oregon is home to unique, old-growth dependent species such as the iconic spotted owl, the elusive marbled murrelet, the pacific fisher, and the coastal marten. Each of these creatures faces ongoing challenges due to habitat destruction despite the endangered status of these species. Currently, 1,363 acres of clearcuts are planned in spotted owl habitat and 885 acres of clearcuts in marbled murrelet habitat.

According to a 2018 ODFW report on marbled murrelet, “existing state and federal programs and regulations have failed to prevent continued high rates of habitat loss on nonfederal lands in Oregon.” While Oregon-based conservation groups are leading up efforts to up-list the murrelet to “endangered” status under state law, over the past two years these efforts have been illegally stalled and fumbled by the ODFW commission[6].  Remaining nesting habitat for marbled murrelet exists mostly on the Siuslaw and Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forests, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and the state-owned Tillamook, Clatsop, and Elliott State Forests.  The commission is currently re-evaluating the status of the marbled murrelet to determine whether it should be reclassified as endangered.

The spotted owl also continues to face threats from to clearcut logging. While the Northwest Forest Plan significantly increased protections for spotted owl on federal land, commercial logging still continues in designated spotted owl habitat on federal, state and private lands. Despite conservation efforts, northern spotted owl species continues to decline across its entire range[7]. Over the past decades, barred owls have emerged as a prominent threat to spotted owls who displace spotted owl, disrupt their nesting and outcompete them for food.

Critical Fish:

Clearcut logging is a driving cause of the decline of critical fish populations across the state.  Networks of logging roads degrade the landscape and contribute to erosion and stream sedimentation. Logging challenges fish populations by depleting summer stream flows and increasing thermal pollution, raising the temperatures of fish bearing streams. For some fish species like salmon that require cold, clean water and are incredibly sensitive to stream temperature, just a few degrees can be the difference between a lively and barren waterway.  Just this year, 8,139 acres of clearcut are planned in critical fish habitat.

Salmon are among the fish species most threatened by industrial logging. At the end of 2019, fall chinook saw a massive die-off of over 200 individuals, spurring the complete closure of salmon fishing in Oregon’s north coast.  The die off was caused by a parasite that was able to thrive in the drought conditions that trapped salmon in small pools of water and increased their rate of exposure.

Recently conservation groups have filed for federal protections for the threatened spring chinook salmon, a species genetically distinct from its fall chinook relatives, and also particularly threatened. Last year, the Fisheries Service acknowledged that listing Oregon spring chinook as threatened or endangered may be warranted based on threats from logging, overfishing and low streamflow.

 Fire Hazard and Community Safety

Young, dense and homogenous timber plantations present a much higher risk of severe wildfire than older natural forests. Research has shown that fires burn faster, hotter, and more severely in private industrial tree plantations than they do in more biodiverse forests on federal public lands.[8] This is especially concerning given that many homes in rural communities are surrounded by these flammable private forests.  A recent court decision slapping down a clearcut planned on federal land in rural Springfield, Oregon, has further underscored the need for greater attention to the fire hazards associated with clearcutting near homes and communities[9].

Also concerning is the ongoing transformation of fire-resilient public forests into highly flammable plantations. Many public lands commercial logging projects are conducted in the name of “fire prevention” but due to the conflicting interest of timber revenue, result in the removal of large and medium fire-resistance trees  which degrades forest resiliency and results in more carbon emissions than a  natural wildfire of the same size

Recent (pink) and planned (red) clearcuts in Wilsonville’s public water supply (blue shading). Planned clearcuts are also infringing upon conservation opportunity areas (yellow) identified by Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. Maps and analysis by Madeline Cowen

Worst Clearcuts of the Year:

Currently there are more clearcuts planned in the city of Wilsonville’s drinking water than any other water supply in the state.  Located on the northernmost end of a large drinking water supply area that extends from Corvallis north along the Willamette River, Wilsonville residents are the recipients of all surface drinking water pollution that originates 100 miles upstream. In total, 4,0792 acres of clearcuts are planned in the surface drinking watershed of Wilsonville residents.

Timber giant Weyerhauser is by far the worst forest manager in the state, currently planning 873 acres of clearcuts in Wilsonville’s water supply alone. Following the infamous timber giant is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Oregon State University, who continue to clearcut hundreds of acres in the McDonald Dunn Research forest located at the southern end of Wilsonville’s water supply.

 What’s Next for Oregon Forests

The comprehensive effects of ongoing destructive logging practices in the state of Oregon are impossible to quantify. This fact sheet is intended to provide decision makers and the general public with just a snapshot of ongoing mismanagement of forestland. As the threat of climate change amplifies in the coming years, it is more critical now than ever to protect forest ecosystems, which can provide a natural solution and buffer us from the worst impacts of this global crisis. We know that industrial forestlands are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change by challenging water supplies, disrupting long established networks and ultimately making forest ecosystems less able to adapt to the coming decades of built-in climate changes. Heavily clearcut lands and the waters that traverse them are far more susceptible to drought, disease, wildfire, floods, landslides, low summertime streamflow, thermal pollution, fish kills, regeneration failures and harmful algae blooms than the natural forests and watersheds they have replaced.

We hope that in shining a light on this incredibly important issue, we can help bolster the case for reform of Oregon’s antiquated logging laws. The idea that forests are only valuable for timber revenue is outdated and no longer serves us. Forests are community treasures, vital resources, places of refuge, and climate solutions. Offsetting climate pollution and buffering against the worst climate impacts will require significant changes in how we manage forests, and this work must begin now.

Connect with us and get involved in our efforts to make these changes today.

[1] Law, BE, TW Hudiburg, LT Berner, JJ Kent, PC Buotte, ME Harmon: 2018. Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests. https://www.pnas.org/content/115/14/3663

[2] Perry, T. D., Jones, J.A., 2016. Summer streamflow deficits from regenerating Douglas-fir forest in the Pacific Northwest, USA. Ecohydrology. 1-13.

[3] Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), 2015. Detailed analysis: predicted temperature change results. Agenda Item 7, Attachment 3 to the meeting packet prepared for the Board of Forestry, June 3rd, 2015. Salem, OR: ODF.

[4] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate change and harmful algae blooms,” available online at: https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/climate-change-and-harmful-algal-blooms.

[5] Kerns, T. (2011, July 18). A Human Rights Assessment of Aerial Herbicide Applications Near and Adjacent To Triangle Lake, Oregon. Retrieved from Environment and Human Rights Advisory: http://www.environmentandhumanrights.org/ehra-reports-database/reportsfor-government-agencies/

[6] https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/2019/08/oregon-illegally-pulled-back-protections-for-seabird-judge-rules.html

[7] Yackulic, C. B., Bailey, L. L., Dugger, K. M., Davis, R. J., Franklin, A. B., Forsman, E. D., Ackers, S. H., Andrews, L. S., Diller, L. V., Gremel, S. A., Hamm, K. A., Herter, D. R., Higley, J. M., Horn, R. B., McCafferty, C., Reid, J. A., Rockweit, J. T., and Sovern, S. G.. 2019. The past and future roles of competition and habitat in the range‐wide occupancy dynamics of Northern Spotted Owls. Ecological Applications 29( 3):e01861. 10.1002/eap.1861

[8] Zald, H.S.J., and C.J. Dunn, 2018. Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape. Ecological Applications 28:1068-1080. doi:10.1002/eap.1710.

[9] Cascadia Wildlands; and Oregon Wild v. Bureau of Land Management; and Seneca Sawmill Company 6:19-cv-00247-MC. United States District Court of Oregon. 2019; and Bark; et al. v. United Stated Forest Service; and High Cascade Inc. No. 19-35665 D.C. No. 3:18-cv-01645-MO. United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. 2020.

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