Environmental groups are pressuring Governor Kate Brown and the Oregon Board of Forestry to find new leadership on forestry issues and increase protections for coastal drinking water flowing through private forestland.
That push accompanies legislative efforts to tighten rules for aerial pesticide spraying on forests and to enact sweeping reforms to the state’s Forest Practices Act, including restrictions on logging near streams and on slopes prone to landslide.
More than a dozen environmental advocacy groups signed letters to Brown and the forestry board after EarthFix reported in January about how a state publication that identified logging as a risk to coastal communities' drinking water was shelved. That action came after members of the timber industry and the state's Department of Forestry disputed the report's scope, methodology, and some of its findings.
In one letter, environmentalists urged Brown to order the original report be published, to develop policies and legislation to increase drinking water protections in rural Oregon and to appoint a water quality scientist to the Board of Forestry, a specialization its current board members do not have.
“As a state we must not allow corporate lobbyists to dictate what scientific evidence our regulatory agencies are allowed to consider in protecting those values, or allow them to completely capture a major state agency to the point where it advocates against public health rather than for it,” says the letter, which was signed by 11 organizations including the Audubon Society, Oregon Wild and the Center for Biological Diversity.
The letter also questions the leadership of State Forester Peter Daugherty, claiming “some ODF staff appear to operate on guidance to shield the very industry they regulate” from citizens who expect forestry rules to be enforced.
A separate letter from John Talberth, director of the Lake Oswego-based Center for Sustainable Economy, and 10 other advocates called on Brown to fire Daugherty or force his resignation.
“It wasn’t just about that report. It was a multi-year, multi-situation pattern of suppressing scientific information and being a roadblock to reform rather than a facilitator of reform,” Talberth said.
The Oregon Forest and Industries Council, a timber industry trade association, disagrees with that interpretation.
“We strongly support a robust public process for policy making that takes input from all interested parties, specifically from designated management agencies with relevant scientific expertise. DEQ's decision to shelve this report is the direct result of the absence of that public process,” OFIC spokeswoman Sara Duncan said.
Daugherty has said his agency takes citizen concerns seriously and expects them to be addressed with sound science. Daugherty previously said his criticism of the DEQ report was based on it not meeting the scientific standards of his agency, and that the agencies continually examine water quality and the adequacy of Oregon’s forestry rules to protect the environment.
Daugherty has been with the Department of Forestry since 2007. He has worked as researcher for the U.S. Forest Service, a professor of forest management and as head of the state’s private forests division.
Environmental groups took issue with comments Daugherty made in January, when he said there was no evidence showing logging was harming water quality on the Oregon coast.
No study has been done showing causation between logging and recent water quality issues on the Oregon coast. While some coastal watersheds experiencing recent water quality problems have been logged extensively, others have not. More generally, the negative effects of forest loss on water quality have been established through scientific studies.
Forestry Department spokesman Ken Armstrong said Daugherty and the Board of Forestry would discuss the letters at the board’s March 8 meeting.
“The Board of Forestry has received, but has not yet had an opportunity to discuss, the letters regarding the DEQ report,” Armstrong said. “The Department of Forestry has a long-standing cooperative relationship with DEQ and we value our work together to protect Oregon’s natural resources.”
Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for Gov. Brown, said the governor “expects state agencies to be accessible and accountable to the people of Oregon and to use the best available data to inform decisions. This expectation has been reiterated to State Forester Daugherty.”
Brown also directed the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to establish a timeline for releasing new water quality reports, which the agency said will cover groundwater and surface water statewide.
Brown’s office did not say whether it will address the requests for new policies or legislation.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has been working on legislation to give neighbors to private forest operations better notice about planned aerial sprayings of weed killer, which has become one of the most contentious forestry issues in recent years.
Dembrow, along with Rep. Ann Lininger, D-Lake Oswego, previously tried to tighten oversight of aerial spraying and expand buffers around homes and waterways where chemicals cannot be sprayed.
That bill was rewritten before it was a given a hearing in the Senate Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. Dembrow now chairs that committee and plans to push a new requirement that provides residents and landowners better notice about aerial spraying nearby.
Another effort in the Legislature aims to overhaul the state's Forest Practices Act, which critics say offers weaker protection than in Oregon's neighboring states.
Industry and state regulators say the existing law is already doing the job, pointing to studies showing water quality on forestland exceeds that of other land uses, such as urban or agricultural.
"We always welcome the opportunity to talk about how Oregon's forest landowners adhere to strict environmental protections and provide carbon storage, wildlife habitat, and clean air and water for Oregonians,” said Duncan of the OFIC. “We look forward to the opportunity to correct on record these spectacular mischaracterizations of the science and state of water quality in Oregon's forests.”
The draft bill, spearheaded by Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, would establish new criteria for forest management and require plans meant to protect old-growth forests and other natural resources. It would place additional limits on logging near streams and on steep slopes prone to landslides. It would also allow local governments to enact stricter regulations than those imposed by the state.
“Our current forest practices are inadequate in protecting the water and habitat quality of many of our streams and rivers," Holvey said.
While many in the environmental lobby claim Oregon’s forestry rules are inadequate, OFIC and other forestry experts have defended Oregon’s laws as being environmentally strong, based on established science and flexible enough to let foresters use their expertise.
“Oregon is a national leader in stringent and science-based environmental protections for forest practices,” Duncan said. “ And we'll proudly speak up on behalf of our good land stewards and shared environmental values.”