Protecting Key Habitat for Coho Salmon in Oregon Coastal Watersheds
The two largest state forests in Oregon, the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests, contain critical spawning and rearing habitat for the threatened Oregon Coast coho salmon. Since the Coho salmon spends half of its lifetime in riparian zones in forests like the Tillamook and Clatsop, careful management of these habitats is essential for the preservation and recovery of Coho salmon populations and to the livelihoods of families who depend on ocean salmon fisheries.
For many years, the State has been logging heavily in these areas under a forest management plan that fails to provide sufficient streamside buffers, steep slope logging protections, aquatic reserves, and road management standards. These management practices are not enough to protect Coho from harm. In June 2018, on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, Institute for Fisheries Resources, and Native Fish Society, Crag filed a complaint against the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) for violations of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit challenges ODF’s poor logging and road-use practices in the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests that harm Oregon Coast coho salmon through landslides and erosion into streams.
What's at Stake
With over 500,000 acres, the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests are the only public lands on the northern Oregon coast—an area otherwise dominated by private industrial forests where cutting practices favor short-rotation forestry with few protections for streams or wildlife. The State Forests provide some of the best habitat left in Oregon, making the area critical for the survival and recovery of Coho salmon. These forests are at an historic crossroads. Stands established following the Tillamook Burn, now nearly 70 years old, are beginning to develop old-forest characteristics. The Tillamook and Clatsop could become a shelter for rivers and streams that foster healthy populations of Coho and other Pacific salmon, while providing opportunities for recreation and tourism—or they could become industrial timberlands.
Protecting watersheds on the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests from harmful logging practices in sensitive riparian areas will have long-term positive impacts on Oregon coastal communities. Because state-owned public land along the Oregon coast comprises the best remaining habitat, protecting important watersheds within the Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests is critical to the survival and recovery of Coho. At the same time, protecting the best remaining habitat will also promote diverse recreational opportunities—including fishing, hiking, birdwatching, and mushroom and berry picking—which help sustain the northern Oregon coast’s robust tourism economy.
Coho rely on the diverse habitat characteristics of Oregon coastal forests for a variety of life cycle stages. Populations of the species are under severe threat from historical and present-day logging practices. Over the past century, this species has experienced a dramatic 95% population reduction. Without a significant change in management strategy, the future of the coho—and other native species dependent on healthy habitat on Oregon coastal forests—is bleak.
The implications are also severe for ocean salmon fisheries, which are governed by the doctrine of “weak stock management,” which sets harvest limits for all salmon fisheries based on the status of the weakest stocks. As a very weak stock, Oregon coastal coho salmon are consistently a limiting factor in harvest of all other intermingling salmon fisheries up and down the West Coast. The economic well-being of many coastal communities is tied to the well-being of the Oregon Coast coho salmon.
In 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that “we are unable to conclude that the state forest management plans will provide for Oregon Coast Coho salmon habitat that is capable of supporting populations that are viable during both good and poor marine conditions.”
Working with the Center for Biological Diversity, Crag prepared for litigation in 2014 but delayed because forestry officials said they were working with the conservation community and the timber industry to develop a new management plan that would potentially avoid harms to salmon and streams. Four years later no such plan has materialized. This is not the only time habitat planning efforts have stalled out. ODF officials developed a draft Habitat Conservation Plan in the late 1990s that would have granted them a permit to allow some harm to threatened and endangered species—including the coho, marbled murrelet and spotted owl—but only in exchange for long-term habitat protections. ODF, however, never finalized the plan. Among other issues, forestry officials did not want to enact stream protections that National Marine Fisheries Service scientists determined were necessary to ensure the coho’s survival. ODF is again looking at developing a plan, but has made no firm commitment to do so.
In June 2018, Crag and partners filed a federal lawsuit against the State that challenges ODF’s poor logging practices that cause and contribute to landslides, erosion, and runoff into coho-bearing streams. We believe that the science is clear: current management practices are inadequate to protect coho salmon from harm. Through this legal action, our goal is to force the State to provide the legally required protections for coho salmon, which are listed as “threatened” under the ESA.
In 2019, we obtained an important court order allowing the case to move forward, and have been actively gathering information and working with expert scientists in the discovery process to prepare the case for trial.
To prepare for the case, Crag and our allies conducted significant pre-litigation work to provide a foundation for the lawsuit, including fieldwork with experts on the impacts of logging operations on landslide rates, erosion, sedimentation and impacts on stream morphology; and gathering site-specific data on the location of specific logging projects, steep slopes, erosive soils, hydrologically connected road segments, coho salmon spawning areas, and coho use areas.
In recent years, the State has moved to increase the level of harvest under intense pressure from the timber industry and rural counties. The State has also refused to prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan. It is clear that the state-based protections are not working and that we must hold the State to the federal protections in the ESA. Time is running out for coho, which means the time is now for litigation to force the State into compliance with its legal obligations.
We are proud to represent a coalition of five fishing and conservation groups as part of this lawsuit: Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Cascadia Wildlands and Native Fish Society.
“Poor logging practices by the Oregon Department of Forestry is causing real harm to Oregon Coast coho and commercial fishing families who depend on these magnificent fish for their livelihoods,” said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for both the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Institute of Fisheries Resources. “Stronger protections for streams to protect the coho, clean water and fishing-dependent jobs and communities is decades overdue.”
Oliver Stiefel is the Crag staff attorney working on the case.