CORVALLIS - Timber harvesting will begin this summer in the Hinkle Creek Paired Watershed Study, one of Oregon's most ambitious research efforts since the 1960s to determine the impact of modern forest practices on fish in forested streams.
The 10-year project is administered by the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.
The Hinkle Creek Paired Watershed Study is larger, and will last longer, than most research efforts on the environmental impacts of forest practices, and it will give policy makers new information on the relationship between timber production and protection of Oregon's fisheries and aquatic habitat.
Data collection has been under way for four years in this forest in the foothills of the central Cascade Range near Sutherlin, Ore. This will provide a background understanding of the hydrology, water quality, fisheries, other aquatic animals and aquatic habitat characteristics before timber harvesting begins. The site was last logged around 1950, and is owned by the Roseburg Forest Products company.
"For decades there have been improvements in forest practices, scientific advances, new road construction techniques, a move toward logging of young or small diameter trees, and the use of harvesting equipment that has a much smaller environmental footprint," said Arne Skaugset, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering at OSU, and lead scientist in this research effort.
"Forest management and timber harvesting in today's second growth forest stands are quite different than in the past," Skaugset said. "However, many assumptions regarding their environmental impacts are still based on studies that were carried out in the 1960s."
With the current listing of many species and runs of salmonids as threatened or endangered, there is a strong need to protect fisheries and aquatic habitat in Oregon. However, the forest sector is also critical, generating 85,000 jobs and more than $12 billion annually to the state economy. A contemporary data set is needed to inform policy makers, and the hope is this new study will provide that.
The Hinkle Creek watershed is similar to many others and may help answer some questions regarding the protection needed for "headwater" streams during timber harvest. These are very small streams that run water all year. They don't support a fishery, but can influence water quality downstream.
"Current Oregon forest practices regulations don't require buffers on headwater streams during timber harvesting," said Steve Tesch, professor and head of the OSU Department of Forest Engineering.
"However, when the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds was formulated, it identified a need for better knowledge about the functioning of this part of the watershed ecosystem," Tesch said. "The Oregon Board of Forestry is considering an update to riparian protection rules, including the need for protection of headwater streams during harvesting. While results from the Hinkle Creek study will not be available in time to inform the current discussion, the goal of studies like this is to anticipate emerging policy questions and work to strengthen the scientific foundation for Oregon forest practice regulations."
Hal Salwasser, dean of the College of Forestry, said that the stakes are very high.
"It's imperative to protect water quality and fisheries, but we must have a body of field science to know what is really needed," Salwasser said. "Continued pressure to move forest rules beyond the state-of-the-science has the potential to cause needless loss of private property value and productive land base."
In the absence of high quality, experimental field data, state and federal regulators could default to a "precautionary approach" in protecting aquatic habitat on private forestlands with more than is actually needed for water quality and fish, Salwasser said. Excess precaution would have implications for jobs and the state's economy. BLM and Forest Service managers also seek an improved scientific basis for aquatic protection strategies in managed forests on federal lands, and an understanding of landscape-scale cumulative effects where federal lands are interspersed with private lands.
At Hinkle Creek, the treatment and control watersheds will be studied on a long-term basis to determine the impact of modern forest practices compared with unmanaged sites. Areas of research include watershed hydrology, fisheries, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, stream chemistry and soils. The response to forest practices will be tracked over time using tags for fish and other advanced technologies. Everything from caddis flies to cutthroat trout will be counted, measured and mapped, and instruments will measure water temperature, discharge, turbidity and sediment content.
If researchers are able to obtain the funding, they plan to expand this research effort to at least two other sites that have different geology, climate and other terrain characteristics. This would provide policy makers even more data to draw on regarding forest management in different terrain and forests.
Collaborators on this research include the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences; Forest and Rangelands Ecosystem Science Center of the U.S. Geological Survey; the Oregon Forest Resources Institute; Oregon Forest Industries Council; Oregon Department of Forestry; Associated Oregon Loggers; Bureau of Land Management; Douglas County; and others.
Oregon's Congressional delegation and leadership by Sen. Gordon Smith, Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Greg Walden and Rep. Peter DeFazio have been instrumental in obtaining federal funding for this project.
The research site at Hinkle Creek also serves as a demonstration area where students, the public, natural resource professionals and policy makers can go and observe the ongoing forest management and research activities.