New bill in Oregon Legislature could cripple timber industry, opponents say

March 25, 2019
A logging truck hauling logs off a small woodland property in Oregon.

Timber companies say a bill proposed in the Oregon State Legislature intends to cripple logging operations across the state.

House Bill 2656 would ban clearcutting, roadbuilding, and the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in forestland watersheds that supply public drinking water systems.

Proponents of the bill say the bans would protect tens of thousands of Oregonians whose drinking water comes from land where logging operations occur.

Eric Geyer, a spokesman for Roseburg Forest Products, said proponents of the bill intend to “effectively shut down the timber industry.”

“Because of the area it covers and the restrictions that it places on management of those lands, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” Geyer said.

At a legislative hearing on March 12 before the House Committee on Energy and the Environment, supporters of the bill included representatives of environmental groups, former water treatment plant operators and residents, primarily from coastal areas, where drinking water largely comes from privately-owned forestland. Opponents of the bill included timber company representatives and other forestland property-owners.

Supporters said clearcutting and roadbuilding erodes soil and causes stream sedimentation during rain events. Sedimentation makes drinking water more turbid, vulnerable to toxic algae blooms and difficult to treat, supporters said.

“Under some circumstances, evidence has indicated an increased risk of erosion and turbidity events for timber harvest on steep slopes — particularly in shallow landslide-prone areas,” said Gene Foster, watershed management manager, in an email. “This can lead to increased sediment and sedimentation that could affect some types of public water supply treatment systems.”

Research show s nutrients carried into waterways by sediments promote algae blooms, which thrive in warm summer water temperatures. Algae such as cyanobacteria — the culprit during Salem’s water crisis this summer — produce neurotoxins and can elicit costly water treatments.

Other researc h shows toxic algae blooms in drinking water systems globally have increased in frequency as a result of warming air and water temperatures.

Additionally, some water treatment facilities must use higher amounts of chemical treatments such as chlorination when drinking water contains more organic compounds from sediments, according to the bill’s supporters. Studies sho w carcinogenic compounds can be produced as a result of sunlight interacting with excessive chlorination.

“It is undeniable that clearcutting, logging roads, and application of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers on forestlands can have major impacts on drinking water sources in our state,” said Rhett Lawrence, the conservation director of the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club.

Geyer and others in the timber industry dispute claims that logging operations contribute to sediment transport. They point to studie s that show sediment levels in waterways remained the same after harvests.

Supporters of the bill are also concerned with the effects of logging on streamflows. At the hearing, they cited researc h showing summer streamflows in Oregon’s Douglas fir plantation forests have been cut in half during the last 60 years when compared to old-growth forests.

Public drinking water systems in Douglas County have been strained by low streamflows in recent drought-stricken summers. The City of Oakland is in the process of receiving funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to build a new water intake system as a result of low streamflows.

Geyer said the bill will place unnecessary restrictions on a timber industry that is already sufficiently regulated.

“I don’t see any benefits of this bill, I only see detriments,” Geyer said.

He said the Oregon Forest Practices Act exists to apply the latest forestry research to regulate logging operations in a way that protects residents.

Chad Davis, program director at the Oregon Department of Forestry, provided testimony at the legislative hearing and pointed to seven recent instances in which the Forest Practices Act was updated to better protect water quality and wildlife.

Proponents of the bill say the Forest Practices Act doesn’t protect residents enough, however.

“Oregon’s current laws and regulations for the protection of forests and drinking water sources are inadequate and are seriously out of line with neighboring states,” Lawrence said.

Geyer said the bill was also unnecessary because waterways in areas with primarily forested land consistently have the highest rated water quality across the state, according to a recent water quality repor t by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Without the ability to clearcut, build access roads and apply pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, Oregon timber companies cannot be competitive in the timber market, Geyer said.

People seeking an exemption to the bill would have to get approval from the state forester and DEQ. Exemptions would only be granted if the proposed project was intended to improve watershed conditions by removing invasive species, increasing carbon storage or improving climate resiliency. Additionally, projects wouldn’t be approved if they increase the risk of algal blooms or sedimentation.

Geyer said he can’t say whether the bill is likely to pass in its current form.

“I can’t ever predict how a bill may or may not move through a legislative session,” Geyer said. “I can only look back at radical bills and say that they don’t typically pass.”