A Step in the Right Direction to Protect Oregon’s Western State Forests

by Joe Liebezeit, Assistant Director of Statewide Conservation

On March 7 the Board of Forestry made a landmark decision to better protect Oregon’s western state forests by adopting the Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that was years in the making. The HCP is an important step in stopping overharvest and addressing habitat needs of endangered species. It also better protects water for over 500,000 Oregonians and will lead to more sustainable forestry practices supporting a healthy coastal economy.

The HCP’s areas of concern are primarily the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests, which stretch across 518,000 acres in Northwest Oregon. Between Portland and the coast, these forests contain some of the region’s last remaining wild rivers, popular recreation locations, and habitat for over a dozen species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The HCP will move conservation efforts forward in several ways:

    • Better protecting key wildlife and recreation corridors, including the Nehalem River, Kings Mountain, and the Wilson River.
    • Creating wider forested no-cut buffers in all salmon-bearing streams designated as Riparian Conservation Areas (RCAs) that would cover 35,000 acres. These RCAs are critical, as decades of timber harvest on steep slopes, which typify these forests, has led to water-quality issues impacting drinking water as well as fish and amphibians.
    • Adopting Habitat Conservation Areas (HCAs) in upland areas covering 275,000 acres, with the goal of creating more complex forested habitat containing larger trees beneficial to endangered species like the Marbled Murrelet and Spotted Owl, which are barely hanging on in these places. Approximately 43% of the Tillamook and Clatsop forests will have these new protections.
    • Targeting protection of 15 other ESA species, including 10 fish (salmon, steelhead, and eulachon), two birds (mentioned above), three salamanders (Oregon slender, Columbia torrent, Cascade torrent) and two mammals (coastal marten and red tree vole).

Outside of the HCAs and RCAs, the timber industry will be able to conduct their business as usual with fewer costs and constraints through “incidental take permits,” which streamline their ability to harvest trees.

The HCP is by no means perfect, and we are disappointed that it doesn’t include more robust protections. In 2022 federal agencies published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that evaluated environmental consequences in issuing incidental take permits of listed species for this HCP. Of five proposed alternatives, Alternative 3 would have provided stronger protections primarily through wider stream buffers compared to the Preferred Alternative that the Board of Forestry adopted. The latest science suggests buffers for non-fish-bearing streams provided under the Preferred Alternative do not protect salamanders, while the buffers recommended under Alternative 3 would have. We are also concerned that approximately 30% of large tree stands (≥80 years old) are excluded from HCAs and RCAs and are open to clear-cutting. Despite these and other deficiencies, we recognize the HCP is a compromise and is much better than the status quo.

Photo by Greg Shine, Bureau of Land Management Oregon

Adoption of the HCP has not been without controversy. Hampton Lumber’s closure of the Banks lumber mill was blamed on the HCP but really was part of a long-range business plan to shift investment in upgrading the Willamina mill. Members of the Board of Forestry with direct ties to the timber industry made multiple attempts to delay and diminish the HCP. We are grateful to the Board of Forestry members who weathered these attempts and voted 4-3 to adopt the HCP. We also thank Cal Mukumoto, Oregon Department of Forestry’s State Forester, for recommending the HCP to the Board and for staying the course. In the latest attempt to thwart the HCP, a timber industry lawyer filed a lawsuit against ODF alleging violation of the Forest Management Plan. The lawsuit was on behalf of the Jewell School District, a rural district that receives funding from Clatsop Forest timber sales. Analysis by conservation group legal teams found the lawsuit to be deeply flawed and more of an intimidation ploy.

The timber industry argues the HCP will reduce harvest levels, leading to layoffs with less revenue for the counties for essential services. While short-term projections indicate a dip in the harvest levels, the HCP is a 70-year plan, and long-term projections by the Department of Forestry indicate timber jobs would increase by at least 10% in Clatsop County and more than 40% in Tillamook County. Annual timber harvests are projected to trend higher during the life of the plan. In the short term, Governor Kotek has committed to work in the next legislative session to find state money to offset losses to timber counties. However, we need a broader conversation about sustainably funding essential services and reducing dependence on timber revenue. The bottom line is that state forests should be managed for the interests of all Oregonians, not just a select few. A 2022 survey by the Oregon Values and Belief Center found that over 70% of Oregonians prioritize managing wildlife habitat and clean water in our state forests. The North Coast currently supports a $550 million recreation economy, and the HCP will enable this economy to grow and provide even better opportunities for birders, fishing guides, hikers, hunters, and others.

Our work is not over. Adoption of the HCP has been challenged and likely will be again. We need to stay vigilant to ensure it is not rejected or weakened, ensure that ODF’s Forest Management Plan includes harvest levels consistent with the HCP, and ensure that “climate-smart” forestry goals (outlined in ODF’s Climate Change and Carbon Plan) are adequately moved forward.

We thank all of our members for providing public comment to help advance the HCP in this important win for conservation. We will be in touch with more opportunities to help our nearby state forests move in a sustainable direction. Stay tuned