Canaries in coal mines don’t have anything over young coho salmon when it comes to reacting to adverse environmental conditions by going belly up.
A California study showed, for example, that “Even small amounts of running water — less than a gallon per second — could mean the difference between life or death for juvenile coho,” the Columbia Basin Bulletin reported earlier this month.
Water temperature, oxygenation, purity, flow rate and other factors such as availability of hiding places all play a part in how many little coho survive the perilous passage between egg and ocean. They are, in a sense, creatures of the forest, in some cases spending up to two years in freshwater streams and nearby brackish sloughs before venturing out into the sea.
About a dozen years ago, the Oregon Coast Coho Conservation Plan was adopted by the state with active involvement by Gov. John Kitzhaber, who smartly wanted to get out ahead of a potential endangered species quagmire.
But attention wandered. Faced with economic demands for more timber harvest, the Oregon Board of Forestry voted in June 2009 to increase logging in the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests, allowing more timber production on 70 percent of the 518,000 acres. By then out of office, Kitzhaber cautioned that logging more of the state forests would compromise habitat.
System gone adrift
The quagmire of endangered-species contention looms once again with last week’s filing of a federal lawsuit by fishing and conservation groups against the state.
Mirroring an earlier threat in February 2014 by the Center for Biological Diversity, that group and several others are mounting exactly the kind of legal challenge that anyone could have predicted.
“Poor logging practices by the Oregon Department of Forestry is causing real harm to the Oregon Coast coho and commercial fishing families who depend on these magnificent fish for their livelihoods,” a spokesman for two of the litigants said. “Stronger protections for streams to protect the coho … is decades overdue.”
Are the conservation groups right? Or is it true, as some local officials in coastal Oregon have long urged, that the state is failing to authorize enough logging?
As usual, all sides in the controversy make some valid points. All habitat is not created equal, and in the pursuit of sustainable multiple-use of our expansive public forests, it makes sense to prioritize some areas for salmon and others for timber or other priorities. A fully functional system of forest management with ample participation by all segments of the public would stand a far better chance of achieving this balance. This, largely, is what the Oregon Coast Coho Conservation Plan was supposed to achieve. For a while, it had the prospect of succeeding.
As we editorialized in 2010, “Steps initiated by Kitzhaber were somewhat helpful in addressing some of the more obvious problems faced by these once-thriving salmon runs. Harvests have been brought into better alignment with reality and hatchery practices have been reformed. Local watershed councils have proven to be a powerful force for good, with timber and agricultural interests often taking active roles in improving freshwater habitat.”
In too many ways, this system feels like it has gone adrift. In the absence of engaged state leadership, it is no wonder this lawsuit was filed.
For historians of salmon management, the list of streams and watersheds included in the state’s coho plan summons up thoughts of waters that were once alive with salmon.
Starting on the North Coast and stretching southward to California, these include the Necanicum, Nehalem, Tillamook Bay, Nestucca, Salmon, Siletz, Yaquina, Beaver, Alsea, Siuslaw, Umpqua, Coos, Coquille, Flores, Sixes and some smaller oceanfront tributaries and sub-basins totaling 56 populations. These names speak of a time when salmon fishing and logging each generated thousands of jobs in dozens of communities, some of which are now mere ghost towns.
As more and more people discover Oregon’s North Coast, it would be an idle and pointless fantasy to think either salmon or forests will ever be what they were a century ago. Our large public forests can, however, be better managed in ways that support local industries and ecological functions including salmon habitat. The blunt weapon of litigation won’t achieve this nuanced result.
What might do so is a regional consensus-based, citizen-driven process of stakeholders hammering out hard compromises. That will require wresting control from remote and disengaged Salem-based agencies. A citizens’ initiative, anyone?