Developing Salmon-Friendly Forestry

There is a quiet—but long overdue—revolution going on in the way Oregon regulates its state- and privately owned forestland commercial logging practices. And the state’s depressed salmon runs will greatly benefit from those changes.

Salmon spawn and rear best in natural forest environments, where old-growth streamside shade trees and unpolluted cold-water springs create all the right conditions for salmon eggs to hatch. The young salmon then can find abundant insect and in-river food sources to help them grow fast as they prepare for their strenuous migration to the sea as smolts.

But all too often, those once widespread (and particularly old-growth) forests that salmon need for spawning and rearing have been clear-cut, once-pristine mountain streams polluted, and legacy logging roads (particularly on steep slopes) have eroded out. The ensuing landslides fill salmon-bearing streams full of sediment at levels fatal to fish.

Decades of poorly planned and unsustainable clear-cut logging is one big reason so many once-abundant runs of salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are now protected as “endangered” or “threatened with extinction” under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and state equivalents.

The serious plight of degrading Pacific Northwest and Northern California salmon runs came to public attention starting in 1993, but in a very roundabout way. By then, there had been many years of lawsuits, gridlock and controversy over widespread and voracious industrial logging practices. Those practices had destroyed old-growth forests used by spotted owls, resulting in the owls becoming ESA-listed.

But then newly elected President Clinton had campaigned hard in the Pacific Northwest, pledging to do his best to end the “Northwest Timber Wars.” One of his first acts in office was to convene the “Northwest Forest Summit” in Portland, Ore. in April 1993 to attempt to do just that.

Through some careful pre-conference political maneuvering, the televised 1993 summit was also attended by then-PCFFA President Nat Bingham as the only invited panelist with an interest in salmon, not spotted owls.

Nat gave an impassioned speech on the salmon problems in our federal forests directly to the president and administration officials at the summit—nearly the entire cabinet. President Clinton then instructed federal agencies to “fix the problems” with the salmon in the process of developing a new federal “Northwest Forest Plan” for the 24 million acres of Pacific Northwest and Northern California federal forestlands, in addition to striking a better balance between logging and protection of spotted owls.

The Northwest Forest Summit was a major turning point—thanks to the Clinton administration, logging practices throughout the Northwest were no longer just about owls, but also about protecting key salmon runs and the watersheds those salmon needed to survive.

As a direct result, the new federal lands management plan featured salmon habitat and watershed protections as a lead component of its over-arching land and species conservation policies.

The plan took two years to develop, but since 1995, under the new “Northwest Forest Plan,” federal timberlands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service throughout the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are now required to set aside permanent salmon-bearing stream riparian conservation (“no cut”) zones of at least 300 feet from the stream on both sides (i.e., 600-foot total buffer zones). Scientists had said that the space is necessary to adequately protect key salmon spawning and rearing areas from the impacts of nearby logging.

For permanent non-fish bearing streams, similar riparian protection zones of at least 150 feet each side were imposed, and for seasonally flowing intermittent streams of at least 100 feet on each side of the stream.

These standards remain today the very best protections that exist for salmon habitat on any U.S. lands, public or private.

These new federal riparian conservation zone protections for salmon are now part of a federal land management conservation mandate called “PacFish;” for other non-salmonid inland fish, they are called “InFish” standards.

The new fish protections were immediately and aggressively attacked by the timber industry in various federal courts, of course. And PCFFA has just as strongly defended them in those same courts, with numerous successes (see for instance PCFFA vs. NMFS, 265 F.3d 1028, at 1035-36, 9th Circuit 2001).

In spite of some modification, these standards still remain the high point for salmon protections throughout the West Coast.

Oregon’s Poor Logging Protections

Turning to non-federal lands, of the states of California, Oregon and Washington, forestry practices and protections for forest-dependent salmon have historically been far weaker in Oregon.

For decades before 1971, industrial logging was almost unregulated in Oregon compared to today—with tragic consequences for many salmon-bearing watersheds.

Some of these private coastal timberlands were so damaged in the early 20th century by massive clear-cuts that they were abandoned by their owners and ultimately taken over by the state to became what are now the Tillamook and Clatsop (together they make up more than 500,000 acres in northern Oregon), and the Elliot State Forests (93,000 acres in southern Oregon).

Altogether, the six Oregon State Forests cover about 821,000 acres, but with the near total loss of good salmon habitat on privately owned timberlands, these state forests now include much of the last, best salmon habitat still left in the state outside of federal lands.

There were some half-hearted attempts by the Oregon Legislature to tighten stream protections in 1992 by the passage of SB 1125, which resulted in the current Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA), which applies to about 12 million acres of Oregon non-federal forestlands.

But the “reforms,” while moving away from a largely unregulated corporate logging industry, were nowhere near as conservation minded as what federal scientists in 1995 said were the minimum salmon stream buffer zones needed to adequately protect the state’s rapidly vanishing salmon runs. Independent scientists, in a report actually commissioned by the state Legislature, agreed.

The size of riparian buffer zones under the OFPA, supposedly to protect key salmon spawning and rearing areas, for instance, were very much smaller in Oregon than for California or Washington.

In some instances, such as for peripheral streams, there were no riparian buffer zones allowed under the forest practices act at all.

Even for fish-bearing streams with ESA-listed salmon present, the maximum riparian buffer zone allowed under the OFPA was only partial protection for up to 100 feet from the stream—but with only a 20-foot “no cut” zone right next to the creek.  This is only a fifteenth of the width of the federal requirements for 300-foot “no cut” buffer zones.

This lack of forestry protections for Oregon’s salmon runs has led to degraded creeks, sediment-polluted waterways and major failures to meet Clean Water Act and state water quality standards throughout much of coastal Oregon, including for many major sources of drinking water.

It also has contributed to precipitous declines of the Oregon ocean salmon fishery, including several recently declared fisheries disasters, putting hundreds of Oregon fishing families out of work and further impoverishing many coastal communities.

However, even under the OFPA, the Oregon State Board of Forestry has much greater power to control logging practices on state-owned forestlands than on privately owned, mostly industrially-logged lands.

The Board of Forestry also has been sued by various conservation and fish protection groups for the past few years for an illegal “take” of ESA-listed salmon by allowing lax riparian protection standards to remain in place that do not actually protect them.

The 70-Year State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan (“HCP”)

The ESA litigation against the Oregon State Board of Forestry essentially prevailed, forcing the state into a Settlement Agreement that (backed by OFPA-reform legislation in 2020) has resulted in a 70-year “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP) for all state forest lands, worked out with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The conservation plan would greatly improve watershed protections for salmon on these lands, as well as improve water quality in forested watersheds that supply the drinking water for much of Oregon.

This is the high point of a nearly 30-year campaign in which PCFFA has played a role from its beginning.

Among other new standards, what is now called the “Western Oregon State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP) would impose salmon-bearing stream riparian buffer zones (“riparian conservation areas” or RCAs) of a minimum of 120 feet horizontal distance. The plan includes seasonal and small fish-bearing streams and many small or peripheral streams not previously protected.

Though these buffer zone standards are less than PacFish standards and were clearly a compromise, they also cover conservation measures for a number of species, not just salmon, including lowering logging production targets within a broader ecosystem protection system in place to help prevent future logging impacts.

The big news is that this newly proposed HCP was formally adopted by the Oregon Board of Forestry (against numerous protests by logging interests) in March.  It now goes on to the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS), which helped in its development, for final approval, which is expected with only minor changes.

This is a breakthrough moment for Oregon forestry reforms to finally bring them into alignment with modern salmon conservation practices in other states.

Moving on to Protect Salmon on Private Forestlands

Most exciting of all, the final approval of the state-lands HCP is a major step toward much broader salmon protections on privately owned timberlands throughout Oregon. The Oregon timber industry has been unsustainably cutting down its old-growth forests for generations.

There had been multiple battles over many years over unsustainable timber practices, damaged water quality, declining salmon runs and the widespread use of pesticides over streams running from commercial timberlands that feed local water supplies. Add in potential ballot-measure duels between conservationists, local affected landowners, public health officials and timber interests. But many of these warring groups (including PCFFA, representing commercial salmon fishing communities) signed a Memorandum of Understanding in early 2020 to work out a truce.

The intent was to work cooperatively on something similar to the state-lands HCP, but specifically for non-public timberlands, in order to provide both greater protections for damaged salmon runs as well as greater certainty for timberland owners needing a more predictable, as well as sustainable, timber supply.

Nearly two years of hard negotiations, however, overseen by the Oregon governor’s office, resulted in a deal, the “Oregon Private Forest Accord” (PFA). Thirteen conservation and fisheries organizations (including PCFFA), 11 timber companies and the Oregon Small Woodlands Association signed the accord in 2021.

It too contains much more stringent standards for restoring Oregon’s damaged salmon runs and protecting them from future logging impacts. The accord was also specifically backed by legislation (SB 1501 and 1502 and AB 4055, in the 2022 legislative session).

Those bills, backed by the governor, all passed. SB 1501 actually incorporated by reference the Private Forest Accord Report dated Feb. 2, 2022, giving its terms the force of law.

The Oregon Board of Forestry is right now working on modifications to its existing Oregon Forest Practices Rules consistent with SB 1501 and the PFA and working on a private-lands HCP that would be consistent with the Private Forest Accord.

In short, there is great hope that Oregon will chart a new path away from its unsustainable logging practices of the past to adopt much more science-based, and conservation-oriented, forestry practices. This will not only protect and help restore the state’s badly damaged salmon runs and watersheds, but also would provide timberland owners much clearer guidelines for what they must do to achieve ecologically sustainable—and salmon-friendly—forestry practices.

PCFFA has been pushing for Oregon forestry reforms to better protect Oregon salmon runs for nearly 30 years. Our West Coast salmon industry should continue to monitor this process carefully to make sure it achieves those goals.   

Glen Spain, J.D., is Northwest Regional Director of both the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA) and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). Lisa Damrosch is the executive director of both organizations. They can both be reached at P.O. Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129 • (650) 209-0801 •