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New bill in Oregon Legislature could cripple timber industry, opponents say

Timber companies say a bill proposed in the Oregon State Legislature intends to cripple logging operations across the state.

House Bill 2656 would ban clearcutting, roadbuilding, and the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in forestland watersheds that supply public drinking water systems.

Proponents of the bill say the bans would protect tens of thousands of Oregonians whose drinking water comes from land where logging operations occur.

Eric Geyer, a spokesman for Roseburg Forest Products, said proponents of the bill intend to “effectively shut down the timber industry.”

“Because of the area it covers and the restrictions that it places on management of those lands, we wouldn’t be able to operate,” Geyer said.

At a legislative hearing on March 12 before the House Committee on Energy and the Environment, supporters of the bill included representatives of environmental groups, former water treatment plant operators and residents, primarily from coastal areas, where drinking water largely comes from privately-owned forestland. Opponents of the bill included timber company representatives and other forestland property-owners.

Supporters said clearcutting and roadbuilding erodes soil and causes stream sedimentation during rain events. Sedimentation makes drinking water more turbid, vulnerable to toxic algae blooms and difficult to treat, supporters said.

“Under some circumstances, evidence has indicated an increased risk of erosion and turbidity events for timber harvest on steep slopes — particularly in shallow landslide-prone areas,” said Gene Foster, watershed management manager at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, in an email. “This can lead to increased sediment and sedimentation that could affect some types of public water supply treatment systems.”

Research shows nutrients carried into waterways by sediments promote algae blooms, which thrive in warm summer water temperatures. Algae such as cyanobacteria — the culprit during Salem’s water crisis this summer — produce neurotoxins and can elicit costly water treatments.

Other research shows toxic algae blooms in drinking water systems globally have increased in frequency as a result of warming air and water temperatures.

Additionally, some water treatment facilities must use higher amounts of chemical treatments such as chlorination when drinking water contains more organic compounds from sediments, according to the bill’s supporters. Studies show carcinogenic compounds can be produced as a result of sunlight interacting with excessive chlorination.

“It is undeniable that clearcutting, logging roads, and application of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers on forestlands can have major impacts on drinking water sources in our state,” said Rhett Lawrence, the conservation director of the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club.

Geyer and others in the timber industry dispute claims that logging operations contribute to sediment transport. They point to studies that show sediment levels in waterways remained the same after harvests.

Supporters of the bill are also concerned with the effects of logging on streamflows. At the hearing, they cited research showing summer streamflows in Oregon’s Douglas fir plantation forests have been cut in half during the last 60 years when compared to old-growth forests.

Public drinking water systems in Douglas County have been strained by low streamflows in recent drought-stricken summers. The City of Oakland is in the process of receiving funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to build a new water intake system as a result of low streamflows.

Geyer said the bill will place unnecessary restrictions on a timber industry that is already sufficiently regulated.

“I don’t see any benefits of this bill, I only see detriments,” Geyer said.

He said the Oregon Forest Practices Act exists to apply the latest forestry research to regulate logging operations in a way that protects residents.

Chad Davis, program director at the Oregon Department of Forestry, provided testimony at the legislative hearing and pointed to seven recent instances in which the Forest Practices Act was updated to better protect water quality and wildlife.

Proponents of the bill say the Forest Practices Act doesn’t protect residents enough, however.

“Oregon’s current laws and regulations for the protection of forests and drinking water sources are inadequate and are seriously out of line with neighboring states,” Lawrence said.

Geyer said the bill was also unnecessary because waterways in areas with primarily forested land consistently have the highest rated water quality across the state, according to a recent water quality report by DEQ.

Without the ability to clearcut, build access roads and apply pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, Oregon timber companies cannot be competitive in the timber market, Geyer said.

People seeking an exemption to the bill would have to get approval from the state forester and DEQ. Exemptions would only be granted if the proposed project was intended to improve watershed conditions by removing invasive species, increasing carbon storage or improving climate resiliency. Additionally, projects wouldn’t be approved if they increase the risk of algal blooms or sedimentation.

Geyer said he can’t say whether the bill is likely to pass in its current form.

“I can’t ever predict how a bill may or may not move through a legislative session,” Geyer said. “I can only look back at radical bills and say that they don’t typically pass.”

County schools using a variety of ways to account for missed days

Nearly a month after a snowstorm effectively shut down Douglas County, most school districts have decided how they will make up for the missed week of classes.

But some are also looking to make adjustments to future calendars.

“We’re planning ahead,” said Laurie Simleness, an office secretary for the Yoncalla School District. “We’ve always had makeup days built in, but they’ve been a little early. So we’re planning some later in the school year.”

Yoncalla already made up a day in March and will make up for more lost instructional time in April.

Elkton School District, where the high school was transformed into a shelter by the American Red Cross, is making up days in April and May, and adding a half day on June 7.

“We only missed four full days,” Elkton Superintendent Andy Boe said. “Two (days) and a half day of makeup. We’re a four-day week so we were able to use some of the Fridays. We did not eliminate teacher (professional development) days either.”

When looking at redoing some of the calendars, district administrators have to take into account staff, both classified and licensed, students, parents and administrators.

Elkton was out of school for the week of Feb. 25, but resumed class on March 4 — although there were a number of two-hour delays in the following weeks.

“I think that coming back, kids really wanted to be back. And we let kids take showers, and as it turned out, some of them were out of power until this week, so that’s 24 days,” Boe said. “I think it was really good. It allowed parents to have a little breather too, have a place for kids to be.”

While there were a few students who didn’t have power for weeks, there were others who were minimally impacted by the snowstorm. Elkton is a charter school and attracts a number of students from the coastal towns.

The Salvation Army, which took over shelter responsibilities for the American Red Cross, hosted its last dinner Tuesday, and at the high school, it’s back to business as usual this week.

“We made it work,” Boe said. “It wasn’t ideal. I think the harder part was the two-hour delay days because we have some shared staff, but we made that work. Really, the Red Cross folks were so easy to work with.”

Other school districts making up days before the end of the school year are Glide and Winston-Dillard.

Officials from Oakland, Glendale and South Umpqua school districts did not return phone calls about how they are making up missed instructional time. The website for South Umpqua School District said two makeup days were added, but it was not clear when those days were scheduled. Oakland School District had two scheduled snow makeup days, but it was not clear if those were used.

Roseburg Public Schools decided not to use its scheduled makeup days.

Instead, the school board changed the elementary and middle school teacher conferences into instructional days and added one day to the end of the school year. High school graduation will still take place Saturday, June 8, and the last day for seniors remains unchanged at June 6.

Camas Valley’s school building was without power for an additional week following the storm. Students were out of school from Feb. 25 until March 8 and the school year will be extended by one day.

Superintendent Patrick Lee said the district, which only has school four days a week, would be adding four Fridays to its schedule.

North Douglas and Days Creek School Districts said they would not be adding days.

Sutherlin School District added four days to the end of the school year, moving the final day to June 11. Riddle School District will now end its school year on June 12, to account for the missed days.

Snowstorm FEMA funds possibly available for public entities such as Douglas Electric, but not individuals

It’s too early to say whether Douglas Electric Cooperative customers will see a rate increase following the recent snowstorm, according to Todd Munsey, spokesman for the company.

After unusually heavy snow devastated the county’s power grid, the utility’s storm-related expenses could be as much as $10 million, Munsey said. Those costs were unavoidable, according to Munsey, as the storm toppled even new utility infrastructure.

Whether or not customers see a rate increase will depend on whether Federal Emergency Management Administration reimbursement funds become available to offset expenses. The county and the state are in the process of requesting funding assistance for public entities, including Douglas Electric, from FEMA as part of the emergency declarations last month.

Wayne Stinson, emergency manager at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said impact reports submitted by residents and businesses help bolster the case for FEMA assistance to public entities, but there isn’t FEMA funding available for homeowners or businesses.

He said the storm’s effects don’t meet FEMA’s thresholds for the individual assistance program. Houses would have had to be completely or almost completely destroyed to qualify, he said.

“It’s unfortunate,” Stinson said. “But when you have a tornado that goes through or a hurricane that completely destroys a whole community, those are types of things that open up that individual assistance declaration.”

It’s likely that FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of storm-related public costs, however. That’s the standard proportion for the FEMA public assistance program.

The cost thresholds for the county and the state to qualify for the program are $407,000 and $5.7 million, respectively, Stinson said. Costs for both governments easily exceeded those thresholds.

In April, officials with FEMA and the state will meet with county officials to determine the actual costs of the storm, Stinson said. Preliminary cost estimates have been submitted to FEMA as part of the county and state emergency declarations.

“Not only do they look at the dollar amount, they look at the impact as well,” Stinson said. “That’s why we paint a picture of how it impacted our citizens and how it impacted our government.”

Thousands of residents were without power for weeks. People around Loon Lake, Upper Smith River and Curtin will be the last to get power back almost a month after the storm.

Munsey said the age of the utility infrastructure didn’t play a role in the scale of the damage because maintenance crews work continuously to prevent outages.

“We had miles and miles of brand new transmission line in the Elkton to Scottsburg area that was brought down — I mean brand new,” Munsey said. “Obviously with a storm of this magnitude, if there are any weak areas, they’re coming down. But I think this thing was so devastating that new structures, new lines, new systems, new builds didn’t matter.”

He said structures that were put up as recently as this summer “came down like match sticks.”

The amount of preventative tree maintenance the company can do is determined by the power line right-of-way.

Douglas Electric can trim and remove trees 15 feet on either side of smaller distribution lines and 20 feet on either side of larger transmission lines.

“It kind of all boils down to the fact that we have a 30-foot right-of-way, bordered by 160-foot fir trees,” Munsey said.

Despite its limits, the utility spends over $1 million a year to maintain the power line right-of-way, according to Munsey. Right-of-way areas are maintained on a two- to three-year cycle, he said.

Douglas Electric checks the durability of utility poles on a 10-year cycle, Munsey said. He added if a pole shows signs of damage or deterioration that suggest it may fall, crews replace it. Crews also mark and return to poles that appear to only have a few years of life left.

That 10-year monitoring cycle is standard for utilities across the country, according to a 2016 report by Jeffrey Morrell, professor of Wood Science and Engineering at Oregon State University. The average lifespan of a utility pole is 30-40 years, according to the report.

“Maintenance is ongoing,” Munsey said. “It’s not how we prepare for this storm, we’re always preparing, it’s more how do we respond to this storm.”

Although thousands of Douglas County residents were without power for weeks as a result of the recent storm, Munsey said Douglas Electric’s year-to-year track record for service is exceptional.

In 2018, the system was fully in service 99.91 percent of the year, Munsey said. The percentages for the three previous years were: 99.92, 99.94 and 99.97.

“Obviously it’s going to take a little bit of a hit this year,” Munsey said.