Years ago, in search of my first career job as a biologist, I interviewed with a private firm in Portland. The interviewer asked me a hypothetical question about how I would help to manage a piece of ground. My reply was a simple question: “What are your objectives?”
He nodded, smiled slightly and made a note. I felt this was an impressive start to my interview and, while I didn’t get the job, I did learn an important lesson: Good management starts with good objectives.
This concept is key to the River Democracy Act of 2021 recently introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley. The senators started in October 2019 by asking Oregonians what wild and scenic streams deserved protection, and the resulting public nomination process yielded thousands of responses and nominations from people across the state.
After vetting these nominations, the Oregon senators are now proposing adding about 4,700 miles to the list of Wild and Scenic Rivers in Oregon, all on public lands.
Protecting a stream under federal law gives federal land managers their marching orders for managing these areas: protect water quality and cultural foods and resources while working with thinning and prescribed burning to reduce the risk of damaging wildfire. Here we see the value of establishing objectives for management of the public’s land.
The new proposal adds about 700 miles of local streams to the wild and scenic river system, including the South Fork of the Umatilla and Walla Walla, the Upper and Lower Grande Ronde, Imnaha and John Day rivers. Maybe you are as surprised as me to find these streams are not already listed as wild and scenic.
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 law is imperfect. My experience implementing this law is that federal land managers often avoid proposing any projects in the identified river corridors. This might be good if you believe preservation is the best way to manage public lands, but it is not a good long-term strategy in dry, fire-prone forests.
The 2021 law makes it clear that a wild and scenic river designation does not set aside these areas as reserves. The law instructs managers to purposefully evaluate the risk of severe wildfire and work with local and tribal governments to develop a plan that deals with these risks, and then do something about it.
Reducing the risk of high-intensity fire does not mean high-intensity commercial logging. Since almost all water in Oregon originates on national forests, maintaining the quality, quantity and timing of runoff is one of the most important purposes of the public’s land. Through the careful use of tree thinning and prescribed fire we can maintain healthy forests and water quality.
There are plenty of bad examples of commercial logging on private lands that have devastated stream courses. Oregon’s somewhat anemic, or perhaps poorly enforced, Forest Practices Act fails to protect these values. I can take anyone up on Mount Emily to see firsthand what bad management of private industrial forest lands means to headwater streams.
To be clear, the law does not affect private property or any existing water rights. The law does withdraw federal stream corridors from mineral entry, meaning that no new mining claims can be made in these areas. This is a good development, as mining and water quality go together like oil and water. We should also anticipate some opposition to management of these areas from the preservationist camp, such as the opinions expressed regularly by George Wuerthner, who asserts all federal forest lands should be off-limits to logging. This ignores the fact these lands are part of the public estate specifically because they can provide resources.
Open spaces, clean water, wildlife habitat and, yes, wood products and forage are all legitimate products of federal lands when managed properly. That’s why we have national forests.
Much of the outdoor recreation we enjoy in Northeast Oregon is focused around good water for camping, fishing, hiking and boating. For this reason alone, protection and sound management of these areas should appeal to us all.
Yes, this law is a big and bold step forward for conservation. Good management starts with solid objectives, and the River Democracy Act provides those objectives and deserves to become law.