After months of delay, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have proposed temporary regulations to protect rivers and streams on public lands in the Pacific Northwest.
Known as "Pacfish," the new plan
establishes buffer zones along thousands of miles of waterways
covering 16 million acres in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington,
northern California and Idaho. New logging, grazing or recreation
activities in these zones will be barred. But approved timber sales
and grazing under current management plans can continue, though the
agencies may modify them if they pose an "unacceptable risk."
The buffers extend 300 feet on either side of
salmon and steelhead trout-bearing streams, 150 feet from non-fish
bearing streams and 50-100 feet from streams that dry up in the
summer, depending on their importance to fish, according to a
100-page environmental assessment.
say protecting these riparian areas is crucial for keeping
water-cooling foliage over the fish's spawning grounds and sediment
out of the water.
Agency officials say the
measures are similar to those proposed in the Clinton
administration's plan for spotted owl forests, and are designed to
head off the growing salmon and steelhead crisis. Of the more than
200 fish stocks at risk, 134 occur on Forest Service lands and 109
on BLM-administered lands, they say.
Pacfish strategies in place, we can look forward to healthier
watersheds and habitats which will play a significant role in
preserving salmon and steelhead trout populations," says Forest
Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. "We also hope to play a role in
offsetting the need for multiple listings under the Endangered
The new regulations will go into
effect this summer, after the agencies reevaluate the plan
following a 45-day comment period ending May 9. Agency officials
say they are implementing the regulations on a temporary basis
while three separate environmental impact statements are drawn up,
one for the Eastside forests of Oregon and Washington, one for
Idaho and one for Northern California. Those plans, expected to be
completed in 18 months, will replace Pacfish, they
Environmentalists reacted to the new rules
with guarded optimism, while timber officials and ranchers said
they will be hurt them.
Jim Riley, a lobbyist
for the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, told the
Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review that Pacfish's buffer zones would
put one-third of the national forests off-limits to timber harvest.
The agencies estimate the plan could reduce
logging in the region by 58 million board-feet and provide 42,000
fewer animal unit months of grazing over an 18-month period. But
Pacfish isn't designed to shut down grazing or logging, says Gordon
Haugen of the Forest Service. "All those things can still take
place; you just have to do it right."
says the agencies are already implementing Pacfish on 10 million
acres of public land in the Snake River Basin due to the presence
of three salmon species listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The law requires them to consult with the National Marine Fisheries
Service before undertaking any activities on those lands, he says.
David Bayles, public lands director for the
Pacific Rivers Council in Eugene, Ore., praises the Clinton
administration and Jack Ward Thomas for issuing the new Pacfish
regulations. "They're looking for uniform management that will obey
the law and allow the fish to survive," he
But Bayles says the draft assessment
sidesteps the problem of protecting lands upslope of the buffers.
"Everybody - even the miners, loggers and grazers - concedes that
riparian zones need to be managed differently than they have been
in the past," he says. "The thornier question is what are we going
to do upslope."
If a problem starts at the top
of a watershed, he says, it will inevitably work its way
downstream. Logging operations high in a watershed, for example,
can increase water temperature and sediment-choked runoff, he says.
"Once a piece of sediment is in the system, it will stay there all
the way down."
Idaho conservationist Pat Ford
agrees. "This isn't ecosystem management," he says. "Without a
system of protected (land) reserves, it won't be able to assure the
survival of the at-risk anadromous fish." Anadromous fish are
spawned and reared in freshwater. They migrate to the ocean where
they spend most of their adult life before returning upstream to
freshwater spawning areas, sometimes as far away as a thousand
Ford says the plan also fails to look at
the habitat of a freshwater species, the bull trout, which
environmentalists want added to the endangered species list. "That
was really dumb of the agencies," he says. "I don't see how they're
going to get ahead of the curve on that debate."
Incomplete as Pacfish may be, some observers say
it marks the beginning of a new era in public-land management.
"Watersheds will now become the foundation of management," says
David Bayles. "That's the centerpiece of the owl plan and that's
the centerpiece of Pacfish."
How committed the
administration is to watershed-based management remains to be seen.
All eyes now turn to the work on the three environmental impact
statements for the region over the next 18 months. The agencies
have set up offices in Walla Walla, Wash., and Boise, Idaho, and
are beginning a series of public meetings.
copy of the 100-page environmental assessment, call Jim Sanders of
the Forest Service, 202/205-1060. To send comments by May 9, write
"PACFISH EA," Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box
96090, Washington, DC 20090-6090.
* Paul Larmer