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When It Comes To Salmon Streams, How Warm Is Too Warm?

John R. McMillan
NOAA Fisheries

Salmon and other threatened fish need cold water to thrive. Research shows current logging rules in Oregon can result in streams warming up more than is allowed under standards meant to protect the fish. That could force the state Board of Forestry to require more trees be left standing alongside fish-bearing streams. And that would be an economic hit to private forest landowners.

In 2002, researchers at the Oregon Department of Forestry began a nine-year study to figure out if logging activity was warming streams. They measured stream temperatures before and after timber harvest, on public and private land. Their findings?

Daugherty: "Private sites, comparing pre- to post-treatment, had a greater frequency of exceedences."

That’s Peter Daugherty, head of ODF’s Private Forests Division. His office performed the study, with help from Oregon State University and other research partners. When he says “exceedences,” he means stream temperature readings that exceeded state water quality standards. And Daugherty says streams on private timber land tended to exceed that standard a lot more often than those in state forests did.

Daugherty: "The probability of exceedences was 40 percent, where in all other categories, the probability of exceedences was about 5 percent."

In fact, streams in private forests got as much as four-and-a-half degrees warmer after logging. The average increase was one and a quarter degrees. In state forests, where more streamside trees had been left, there was no increase … Known as the RipStream study, the report has become the basis for calls to require wider buffers along streams. Mary Scurlock is with the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition, a group of environmental and fishing industry organizations. She says the RipStream study has pushed the Board of Forestry to consider stronger streamside protections.

Scurlock: "It provided a pretty clear and irrefutable basis for the finding, that even a board that is dominated by industry interests had to find that we have a problem, on the basis of that study."

Federal officials also see the science as pointing toward the need for Oregon to increase buffers to protect fish from warming streams and silt-laden runoff. Will Stelle is the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Stelle: "What it tells us is that if we put these improvements into place, there’s a high likelihood that we will be dealing directly with the temperature and sediment loading issues with a substantial degree of confidence."

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