To casual observers, Oregon might seem like an idyllic state where people are at one with nature, cycling and hiking surrounded by greenery, and fishing in crystal-clear streams. While the state is undoubtedly blessed with an abundance of natural riches, what you see on the surface is only part of the story.
What is the rest of the story, you ask? The award-winning new film from Pacific Rivers, Behind the Emerald Curtain, fills in a lot of the blanks. The film paints a bleak but honest picture of Oregonians affected by logging, landslides caused by clearcutting and toxic pesticide spraying.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this story is the fact that the
state’s outdated laws regarding forestry actually allow much of this
destruction to take place, while neighboring states generally ban most
of this behavior.
For example, Washington bans herbicide application closer than 200 feet to homes, while Oregon hasn’t had such a law since 1996. Unlike Washington and Idaho, Oregon does not define wind speeds that are acceptable for aerial spraying. California and Washington notify residents before spraying takes place; that is not the case in Oregon.
All told, aerial spraying went up by 20 percent between 2010 and 2014, but the timber industry is not required to report how much herbicide they actually use. A lack of regulation makes it hard for residents to file lawsuits for forestry practices such as “chemical trespass.”
Disconnect between Oregon’s values and laws
Pacific Rivers’ Communications and Marketing Director, Natalie Bennon writes in National Geographic‘s Voices: “It’s time for Oregon’s laws to catch up with Oregon’s values.”
Earlier this year, federal regulators withdrew grant money given to the state, because it failed to prevent forestry practices from polluting its coastal streams, a move that came after years of warnings.
In addition, the state allows helicopters to spray toxic pesticides such as atrazine and glyphosate over its timber-lands. Some of these chemicals have been banned in entire countries, but Oregon gives them free reign. In fact, glyphosate was listed by the WHO’s IARC as being “probably carcinogenic,” but that’s not enough to force the state to ban its use. These chemicals also get into water supplies and drift onto area residents.
Clearcutting is causing man-made landslides
Another big problem is man-made landslides. The practice of clearcutting on unstable slopes sends sediment and mud plunging into steams, rivers and sources of drinking water on a regular basis, hurting aquatic life and forcing areas to treat the drinking water with harmful chemicals like chlorine just so people can drink it. Those communities that want to avoid this must foot the bill themselves for costly water treatment or pumping water in from cleaner areas.
Meanwhile, Oregon has some pretty lax rules regarding streamside buffers. These are the areas of land running alongside streams where logging is not permitted. The buffers required by Oregon are simply too narrow, which causes a number of problems. Buffers filter out sediment to keep the water clean, and shade the water to keep it cool. Perhaps most importantly, however, they help fish habitats thrive, as their leaves fall into the streams over time.
One step people in Oregon and elsewhere can take if they have concerns about their water quality is to send a sample to EPA Watch for free testing.
The only way to ensure healthy streams and rivers and safe drinking water is for the state of Oregon to institute protective measures and update its forest practices. Clearcutting should not be allowed on steep slopes, buffers of trees should be required along all streams, and toxic pesticides should be banned outright. Only then can the state start to live up to its green reputation.