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Opinion: BLM lands give us clean water

Medford Mail Tribune Opinion by Dominick A. DellaSala

The July 14 guest opinion “Logging didn’t cause water problems” by retired forester Theodore Lorensen digs deep into my report, featured in the Mail Tribune on June 27, to find any contentious points to discredit my message that unlogged Bureau of Land Management lands are important for clean water. Decades of research, and not just modeling studies or one contentious example from Salem that he cites, provide strong evidence that heavily logged and roaded watersheds, most notably those occurring on state and private lands, contribute to significant water quality problems.

It’s simple, really: When you clearcut the trees and bulldoze the ground, heavy rains wash away the soil, leading to more landslides and muddy water. Heavy erosion events stem directly from road-related slope failures. Clearcutting on steep slopes, logging in streamside areas and culvert failures that cumulatively leak sediments into streams are expensive for public water utilities to treat low-quality water, and they damage salmon runs. There are numerous government reports, field studies and water-quality monitoring reports by the Department of Environmental Quality that back my claims. Lorensen is correct that landslides also can occur in healthy watersheds during heavy rains, like the one in Salem years ago, but the evidence is solid that there are many more in logged and roaded watersheds contributing to Oregon’s water quality problems.

On the other hand, well-protected and well-managed watersheds are much better at reducing flood damage and producing clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, more resilient local economies and outdoor recreational benefits as fully detailed in my report. Forest thinning, if done judiciously, can also lower fire risks to watersheds by culling overly dense small trees as in the Ashland watershed.

Other restorative actions can put loggers to work removing failing roads and repairing inappropriately sized road culverts. Communities throughout Oregon are doing this right now through Oregon’s Salmon Plan and the restorative work of watershed councils.

I also cite studies documenting the ecosystem benefits of well-managed (unlogged) watersheds that represent an estimated savings to public water utilities and taxpayers in billions of dollars from road-related sediment avoidance costs nationally. From the forest to the faucet, unlogged watersheds are wellsprings of clean water, which will only become increasingly valuable economically and ecologically as many communities in the West struggle with over-allocation of precious water supplies and climate change triggers more intense droughts.

As a conservation scientist, I am inclined to inform the public of what’s at risk to our public lands by using the tools of my trade — computer modeling, literature reviews, fieldwork and publishing in peer-reviewed journals, the gold standard for scientific publication — which I routinely do. Putting all that aside, you only have to look out the window the next time you fly over Oregon’s intensively managed forests to see the maze of roads and shotgun blast of clearcuts, mostly on private lands. In our region alone (Klamath-Siskiyou) there are enough forest roads to drive to Portland and back 50 times. Clearly, this isn’t good for salmon, clean water or wildlife.

It is also my civic duty and responsibility as a parent to advocate for a healthy planet with vibrant salmon runs and clean water and to warn of the dangers of rampant logging as the science clearly shows. Attempting to discredit a solid body of scientific evidence with one contentious finger-pointing episode is not helping. “Get the cut out” forestry myths from decades ago will not give us clean water, healthy wildlife or vibrant communities. They will lead only to more polarization and a return to failed policies of the past.

Sen. Ron Wyden can create a legacy for Oregonians if he protects our remaining mature forests and watersheds for their drinking water, outstanding fish and wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.

Dominick A. DellaSala is chief scientist for the Geos Institute and author of the award-winning book “Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation.” Read more online at




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