Published: Monday, September 26, 2011, 4:43 PM Updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2011, 6:06 AM
GARIBALDI -- Miami Forest Road is what Oregon foresters call a "legacy" road, meaning it is left over from the days when people built a slap-dash network of dirt logging roads without much thought to salmon habitat.
This forest road, put in to salvage timber after wildfires in 1945, follows the Miami River, one of five streams that empty into Tillamook Bay. The river is a babbling trickle in summer, but come winter it swells with the rain cascading down the slopes and flowing under, over or through Miami Forest Road.
That runoff puts the old road, and hundreds like it, very much in the news. Last summer, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals equated stormwater runoff from logging roads with industrial pollution. Sediment can smother salmon eggs, and the court ruled road runoff is pollution that requires a discharge permit under the federal Clean Water Act.
The ruling stunned state and federal forest managers. A law firm representing timber companies said the court turned its understanding of the Clean Water Act "upside down." Private forestland owners worry their roads will be subject to more regulation as well. Oregon's political leaders want the ruling overturned. With thousands of miles of logging roads potentially requiring pollution discharge permits, a bitter tussle in the courts and in Congress seems certain.
But beyond the legal fight, the forest floor is changing.
From 1997 to 2009, public and private forests closed or decommissioned 2,572 miles of logging roads, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, an educational organization established by the Legislature.
The Mount Hood National Forest alone is reviewing about 3,389 miles of "legacy" logging roads -- most of them built from the 1940s to the 1980s when timber production was seen as the forests' primary function, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rick Acosta said. So far, the forest service has decided to take out 746 miles of road.
The closures will result in a "right-sized road system" that's capable of meeting the multiple mandates of the modern forest: Clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation in addition to wood products, Acosta said.
Elsewhere, state forests installed 63,055 cross drains on logging roads from 1995 through 2008 to route runoff away from streams.
On Miami Forest Road this summer, the Tillamook State Forest is decommissioning 2.15 miles of road. The $200,000 project includes plowing the surface, removing two bridges and digging out multiple metal culverts. Excavators created humped terrain to slow down and catch stormwater, and placed dozens of 60-foot logs and ponderous root wads in the river to form pools, filter gravel and improve salmon habitat.
The old logging road has paid the price of the Miami River's fitful nature, said Kate Skinner, assistant district forester. Segments had to be reinforced with riprap where the river took a bite in the past, and slides are a hazard. Taking out the section of it made sense, Skinner said, especially because other roads provide access to areas likely to be logged in the future.
Hunters, hikers and anglers can continue using the area, but they'll have to park and walk in, Skinner said.
The work is largely paid for by an Oregon State Lottery grant obtained by Denise Lofman, executive director of the Tillamook Bay Watershed Council. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service provided $26,000 for habitat work downstream.
Lofman said juvenile coho salmon, which spend winter in the river before migrating to the ocean, will be the chief beneficiaries when the work ends this month.
"It's allowing the river to do what it wants," she said.
A winding road
The appeals court decision sprang from a lawsuit involving two other roads in the Tillamook State Forest. Environmentalists measured runoff entering the South Fork of the Trask River and the Little South Fork of the Kilchis River.
In pressing for Supreme Court review, Gov. John Kitzhaber has said he supports work to improve logging roads and prevent harmful discharges to streams. He wants collaboration, "not management by lawsuit," he said in July news release.
Meanwhile, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden introduced legislation that would exempt logging, thinning and other forest activities from pollution discharge permits.
But Portland attorney Christopher Winter, who worked on the case for Northwest Environmental Defense Center, said state and timber industry officials overstate the "chaos" the appeals court ruling will cause.
To date, no one has filed for a discharge permit. Winter said timber operators, loggers and haulers will be in "knowing violation of the Clean Water Act" if they don't follow the court's ruling and get permits.
The issue isn't going away anytime soon.
Deciding to decommission logging roads isn't as simple as it might seem, said Julia Jones, a Department of Geosciences professor at Oregon State University. She's studied the hydrology of logging road runoff.
"Are the roads going to be used again?" she asked. "Because the trees are going to keep growing. There will be a need to do firefighting and logging."
Problems can arise. Firefighters attempting to reach the Dollar Lake Fire on the northeast side of Mount Hood this month were temporarily stymied by two recently decommissioned logging roads.
Meanwhile, private timberland owners believe the court ruling will result in another layer of control and scrutiny, said Tom Nygren, who owns 80 acres of timber in the Chehalem Ridge area near Newberg and 85 acres near Drain, in Douglas County.
"We all require roads to manage our property," Nygren said. "We're concerned about overlaying a new system on top of that."
His Chehalem Ridge property was logged between 1904 and 1910, again during World War II and a third time in 2000. It has a dirt road rebuilt by Willamette Industries when it logged most recently. Nygren said he mows and maintains the road, and clears the culvert when necessary. His Douglas County property has old logging roads closed off by brush, and an access road maintained by Bonneville Power Administration.
Nygren said he doesn't use his road during the winter, when it's muddy. He hasn't seen road sediment flowing into the two small streams that cross his property. The most recent logging left a significant buffer of trees along the banks, and thick vegetation blocks soil movement, he said.
Additional regulation may encourage small woodland owners to develop their property instead of bothering with a permit system that could be costly and complicated, Nygren said.
"If there is a problem we ought to be looking at that, but it should be based on good science," he said.