Streamside forest buffers based on false assumptions, flawed science

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Senator Doug Whitsett

Oregon was the first state to adopt a Forest Practices Act. The widely supported 1971 Act was intended to protect forest streams against potential negative timber harvest impacts. It required the maintenance of sufficient undisturbed forest buffers alongside streams to reduce water pollution and soil erosion.

Over the ensuing twenty years, both the purpose and the implementation of the Act changed dramatically. Forest buffer zones were widened by rule in 1987 and then extended by the 1992 Northwest Forest Plan to require the maintenance of 150 foot wide buffers of undisturbed forest vegetation. Those required forest buffers have been enforced for more than two decades.

The purpose of the forest buffers now is allegedly to be to protect cold water fish habitat. Government paid biologists have theorized that maintaining the buffer zones would reduce stream temperatures and result in better fish production in the protected streams. Studies by the Department of Environmental Quality (Department) measured stream temperature and forest buffer widths, but did not evaluate other factors including the fish. The Department established their “Protection of Cold Water Standard” criterion based on those assumptions and studies.

It appears that those “Department scientists” based their assumptions, and the future of both the forest products industry and our salmonid fisheries, on modeled studies that often contradicted empirical research. The government paid biologists never bothered to actually measure the fish production in those protected streams. Worse, they ignored several studies that reported a general increase in fish productivity where clear cuts extended to the edge of the water.

Oregon State University forestry professor emeritus Mike Newton has been researching the actual benefits of streamside forest buffers for more than 20 years. Dr. Newton has measured and evaluated data collected on streams that have no forest buffer zones, streams that have various widths of forest buffers, and streams that have never been logged. He has accumulated years of empirical data on stream temperatures and fish food production. He has counted the actual number and size of fish and calculated fish production volumes in the stream segments.

Dr. Newton’s data emphatically contradicts the conventional wisdom that shaded streams are necessary or even beneficial for salmonid fish production.

His long-term empirical data proves that fish actually grow more numerous, and grow larger, in areas with little or no streamside vegetation, compared to streams with carefully maintained forest buffers that shade the stream surface. His measured data shows that fish reproduce and grow better in sunlit streams because the sunlight creates conditions that grow more food for the fish. One of those beneficial effects is increased water temperature! Any warming of the water that occurs in those sunlit areas is rapidly dissipated, as the water flows downstream.

Clear-cuts extending to the water’s edge, with no streamside forest buffer, produced the highest and largest fish counts in Dr. Newton’ study area. Moreover, streams affected by all different kinds of logging activities consistently produced more fish compared to stream segments passing through unlogged forests.

Dr. Newton’s twenty years of carefully collected on-site data simply destroys the veracity of the Department’s modelled “Protection of Cold Water Standard”. In fact, his data proves that the entire effort to protect the cold water standard may be misguided and actually counterproductive to optimal fish production.

Once again, the adoption of a false assumption by government paid biologists has wrought serious harm on both the timber industry and our fisheries.

Most government paid scientists appear to shun spending time in the field to actually observe, measure and collect real data. They seem to be wed to the practice of supporting their assumptions with modeled data. Too often the information used to calibrate their models is also based on assumed data points.

One could assume that these biologists are either uninformed regarding appropriate scientific methods, too lazy to gather and evaluate empirical data, or that they have an agenda other than the protection of fish. In my opinion, the latter is too often true. The execution of the Forest Practices Act is a clarion example. It has devolved into a pretense of science that targets the future existence of the forest products industry.

The myth that mercurial additives to vaccines causes autism was the most damaging medical hoax of the century. The British scientist that initiated and perpetuated that hoax was found guilty of three dozen charges by the General Medical Council, including dishonesty, irresponsibility and abuse of developmentally challenged children. He was stripped of his science credentials, struck from the Medical Registry and barred from medical practice.

Those scientists that misrepresent and adulterate forest science for political gain deserve no less.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls