by Ann Vileisis, president and conservation chair of Kalmiopsis Audubon Society
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OWRD considers protection for North Fork Smith
On another front entirely, KAS was part of the team that petitioned the Oregon Water Resources Commission last year to withdraw waters in the North Fork Smith basin from any new appropriations as a proactive way to use state water law to guard against mining.
The rugged and remote North Fork Smith (including its tributary Baldface Creek), which flows from the area just south of Kalmiopsis Wilderness, is one of the streams currently threatened by a foreign-owned company's proposal that aims to develop strip mines at its headwaters. Even though few of us have hiked into this wilderness stream, it feeds clear cold water into the Smith River, which we see as it flows through its dramatic canyon along Hwy 199 and then through the towering redwoods of Jed Smith State Park over the border in California.
In response to our petition, the Commission recommended a different tack to accomplish the same goal and asked the Department to classify the waters for current existing uses, including fish, wildlife, and recreation.
The Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) convened a stakeholder advisory committee and in late September held a hearing in Brookings to take public testimony on this new classification rule. I testified on behalf of KAS, joining 35 other people, including fishing guides, fish biologists, boating guides, water districts that depend on the Smith River, other conservation groups, local businesses and many local people who love the river—all of whom gave great testimony about the outstanding values of the Smith. Thanks to everyone who sent in comments via email and who attended the hearing!
Only the Coos-Curry and Del Norte Farm Bureau were opposed, arguing that the classification would provide momentum that would lead to a designation in California for water quality that might someday harm farmers. It’s an argument that makes no sense since this rule would affect only water in Oregon and would protect instream flows so that clear water will continue to flow downstream into California for the use of farmers in the estuary.
The following week, I also joined Dave Lacey of South Coast Tours and Mark Sherwood and Sunny Bourdain from the Native Fish Society in testifying before the Curry County Commissioners to garner their support for this state rule change, too. I am very pleased to report that the current crop of Curry County Commissioners has been very supportive of all efforts to protect our cherished wild rivers, and so please thank them when you get a chance.
The Oregon Water Resources Commission is expected to make a final decision on this new rule at its January 2017 meeting.
Finally, you may be scratching your head and asking why all the extra effort at the state level when we’re working so hard for a mineral withdrawal at the federal government level? It’s because the mineral withdrawal is imperfect. It’s the very best we can do given that we’re stuck with the outrageously antiquated Mining Law of 1872. The mineral withdrawal will prevent new mining claims and will require that mining companies prove their claims are “valid” before any plans can proceed. (“valid” claims are grandfathered) Thus far, no companies have proven valid claims, so we are hoping all will be AOK. But there is the possibility Red Flat Nickel could litigate and try to prove validity after the fact. And so we’re not taking any chances.
Because strip mining would be such an existential threat to our region’s rivers and salmon and because mining laws are so tipped to favor multinational mining companies rather than communities, we’ve needed to be aggressive in stopping it before it can gain any toehold.
Elk River Fall Chinook
As KAS members know, Elk River’s cherished fall Chinook run has a big problem. In its 2014 Coastal Conservation and Management Plan, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) identified the Elk’s fall Chinook as the only “non-viable” Chinook run on the coast, attributing the problem to two limiting factors: lack of rearing habitat in the estuary (owing to conversion of rich floodplain habitats to agriculture) and too many hatchery fish spawning in the wild. For the latter problem, the operative number is referred to as “pHOS” –percent hatchery fish on spawning grounds (pronounced PEE HOSS).
For all coastal hatcheries (except the Salmon River), the pHOS is 10 percent or less; on Elk River, pHOS has routinely exceeded 50 percent! The risk of too many hatchery fish on spawning grounds is that genetic traits of hatchery fish can be transferred to wild fish—essentially domesticating them to the detriment of their long-term productivity and survival, critical to understand because each salmon run has evolved and adapted to conditions of its home river. Since hatchery operations are fundamentally dependent on wild fish as “seed stock” and because low productivity makes a salmon run vulnerable to many other stresses, including those from changing ocean conditions and temperature, this is a problem that must be addressed, and soon.
Since adoption of the Coastal Management Plan (in which KAS served as a stakeholder), KAS has tracked ODFW’s efforts to turn this situation around. Last year, ODFW reduced the smolt output from 325,000 to 275,000. They've also improved faulty ladder operations and are now trying to build weirs in a key tributary to prevent hatchery fish from entering spawning grounds. In addition, they’ve started to leave the trap door open all through the season so that hatchery fish can always come in. In years past, the doors were closed as soon as the minimum needed quota was obtained. This year, the Oregon Hatchery Research Center is also starting research to determine if it’s possible to use a chemical attractant to scent the water in the hatchery to produce a stronger homing effect that will draw hatchery fish back into the hatchery, with the aim of reducing pHOS –the percent of hatchery fish on wild spawning grounds. Through a collaborative stakeholder process, the Coastal Management Plan set 30 percent as a goal for pHOS in Elk River, but it’s important to know that 10 percent is what most fish biologists consider to be the limit.
The irony of this situation is tragic because the Elk River has one of the most intact watersheds left on Oregon’s coast. It is imperative that ODFW work to increase productivity of the Elk River Chinook so that the run can be restored to viability once again. Meanwhile landowner efforts to restore habitat in the lower river will also be critical for the long-term well-being of both the Fall Chinook and the SONCC coho.
Marbled murrelet updates
Portland Audubon Society (PAS) brought a lawsuit in late September against the Oregon Board of Forestry (OBF), contending that the board has abdicated its duty to protect threatened Marbled murrelets on private and state forest lands. PAS had petitioned the board to conduct a resource site inventory for the murrelet and to find ways to protect nesting sites, but the OBF denied the petition. PAS and two other groups, Cascadia WIldlands and Center for Biological Diversity, are now seeking a declaratory judgment that the board's refusal of their rulemaking petition was illegal, and requiring OBF to take an inventory of nesting sites and develop rules to protect the birds.
Portland Audubon has long led efforts to protect the marbled murrelet and its habitat. It was PAS that sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and won listing of the bird as a federally threatened species in 1992. A recovery plan was adopted in 1997, and since then PAS has had to intervene twice in cases seeking to delist the bird in Oregon. Earlier this year, PAS asked the Oregon Fish and Game Commission to up-list the bird from threatened to endangered on the state list. That decision is still pending.
As most of you know, the Marbled murrelet is a chunky little seabird that nests inland on the massive mossy boughs of old -growth trees—a habitat type decimated by extensive, clearcut logging in the 1960-80s. Known in birder shorthand as MAMU, these birds lay a single egg on a fat, mossy branch. After the chick is hatched, parent birds forage at sea, but carry a small fish back to the nestling each morning before dawn, under cover of darkness—sometimes flying more than 10 miles inland. The darkness helps keep the location of the nest unknown to predatory birds, such as jays and crows, which are a significant menace with fragmented forest habitats. The MAMU’s unique and remarkable lifeway has been utterly threatened by loss of old growth forest—more than 95 percent of which was cut down in Oregon’s Coast Range. Endangered Species Act protections for MAMU now serve to safeguard old growth forests, with added benefit for many other creatures that depend the limited habitat type—including salmon that benefit from intact watersheds for clear cold water.
Save the Elliott
Our friends to the north in Coos County are doing their best to oppose privatization of the Elliott State Forest. The roughly 91,000-acre Elliott State Forest lies northeast of Coos Bay and has, since the 1930s, been owned and managed by the state to benefit public schools. Instead of developing a plan to manage the plantations for long-term harvest balanced by conservation of old-growth forests, as required by law, a few years ago, the state decided to boost harvests, neglected Endangered Species Act compliance, got sued, and in frustrated response, decided to just sell out to the highest bidder. It is now accepting bids, and the three-person state land board (including the governor) will make the final decision to sell in December.
The Forest is a mix of plantations (areas that have been clearcut and are now growing back as tree-farms), and old-growth—never-cut groves that retain qualities that make them terrific for recreation and critical as habitat for marbled murrelets. Citizens of Coos Bay, who are surrounded mostly by forest industry land with limited opportunity for public access, are now concerned to see their outdoor backcountry headed toward privatization. In mid-October, the coaltion working on this issue staged a rally in Salem with the hope that there can be some better solution.
To learn more and to add your name to their petition, go to: http://www.savetheelliott.com
Southern Oregon gray wolf shot
In the past few years, it’s been exciting to witness the return of gray wolves to southern Oregon. Remember when the lone male OR-8 wandered through wildlands for months, improbably found a mate, and then produced a litter –the first in ages?! And so it’s sad to report a setback: a female wolf from the recently formed Summer Lake pack was shot and killed in early October. She was radio collared, and so it’s known she’d produced at least one pup this season. The gray wolf is an endangered species in the western two-thirds of Oregon, and so this shooting is a violation of the Endangered Species Act and will be investigated.
Paris Climate Treaty a go!
With the European Union’s ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement in early October, a critical benchmark was finally reached—with 55 percent of countries representing more than 55 percent of global emissions in agreement. This means the agreement can finally go into effect in November. With this critical groundwork laid, nations can move ahead toward mutually agreed-upon targets to reduce atmospheric carbon.
I am proud to say that our own Senator Merkley is showing bold leadership with a new call for the equivalent of a moonshot to move America off fossil fuels by 2050. Of course, political stalemate on this critical issue has been painful to watch, given that we are already seeing the impacts of global warming in our ecosystems and lives. Every month since June 2015 has been hotter than records ever before recorded. Senator Merkley’s 100 by 50 plan outlines six concrete actions to lower carbon emissions: 1) a fee on carbon, 2) energy conservation, 3) using renewable energy for all electricity, 4) shifting fossil fuel technologies to greener electricity, 5) substantial research and development of green energy technologies, and 6) carbon offsets when no other option is possible. As Senate Merkley has explained in testimony before the Senate, "nothing short of our existence on this planet at stake.” Political leadership on this critical issue is absolutely necessary to move our country to action, so send Senator Merkley a note of encouragement and thanks to help keep him inspired, fired-up, and working for the changes that we desperately need. You can do it at: https://www.merkley.senate.gov/contact/
Last updated Oct. 24, 2016