Watershed management through the years
by Jim Fairchild
By 1900, near the confluence of the Marys and the Willamette Rivers on Champinefu lands, the rapidly expanding settlement once known as Marysville faced a life-threatening challenge—water borne diseases. These rivers could no longer deliver safe drinking water, due to pollution from widespread settlement and commercial trade up and down the Willamette. So, settler eyes looked upstream on the Marys River for a safer source.
Enterprising settlers focused on Rock Creek, coming off the eastern slopes of Marys Peak, snow-covered and blanketed by deep, old growth forests, which even now contain the largest concentration of large diameter trees northward from the redwood forests of coastal California. Labeled “MARY’S RIVER” on early maps, Rock Creek would prove to be a great choice. It consistently supplied clean drinking water to Corvallis citizens, safe without treatment or filtering.
Over the next decade municipal water rights were established and an Act of Congress enabled acquisition and protection of the entire Rock Creek watershed as a valuable drinking water source. Even then, settlers recognized that rampant and unregulated logging was contaminating streams, and threatening clean water and fish habitat with erosion and runoff.
Approaching the mid-century, lumber mills across western Oregon were busy exploiting a seemingly endless supply of the most workable timber on earth–old growth Douglas fir. Soon depleted from private lands, foresters trained at the nearby college were ready to perform more “research.” In the municipal watershed, events of drought, disease and windstorm served to rationalize the removal of blown down or diseased trees. An extensive network of roads was bulldozed throughout the watershed, locked gates were installed, and stands of old growth forest were clearcut and replanted to create monoculture farm crops.
By 1990, roughly half the Corvallis municipal watershed had been converted to tree farm. The portion of these plantations managed by Siuslaw National Forest are now directed toward restoring old growth forest characteristics, while both city-owned plantations and century-old native forests are logged specifically for revenue —creating a self-perpetuating cycle of need for managers and consultants to prescribe more logging. An insignificant portion of logging profits pay for habitat restoration work, while none pays for protecting this city water supply.
We need to stop jeopardizing this water supply by creating “working forests” with soil degraded by compaction and repeated tree removals. Logging depletes the capture and retention of water, releases greenhouse gasses, and diminishes a forest’s capacity to store more carbon needed to mitigate climate change. New and rebuilt roads contribute to more winter surface runoff. Reduced summer flows already interrupt summer stream water collection here. Working forests also require control of invasive plants and animals, even barred owls, that follow these operations. Working forest managers try to control vegetation by spraying toxic chemicals, but can’t stop the invasions.
After the last fifteen years of logging, citizen outrage halted a second logging operation along Old Peak Road and the Corvallis-to-the-Sea trail, planned without public engagement. Managers have yet to demonstrate any appreciable benefit to Corvallis for logging in its watershed–to its overall budget, to its water supply, or to the marbled murrelets, spotted owls, red tree voles, bald eagles, martens, flying squirrels, and myriad other wildlife living in its forest. Corvallis has neither measured nor accounted for the tremendous carbon release triggered by its last fifteen years of logging. And for more than two and one half years managers have failed to hold public meetings, to provide notice in decision-making, or to make changes needed to reinstate transparency, public engagement, or instill public trust.
Stewardship means giving back to the forest: planning and acting outside of one’s self-interest. Corvallis forest managers have focused instead on taking from the forest: jeopardizing our future water supply while contributing hugely to atmospheric carbon, and disregarding clean air, clean water, imperiled wildlife habitat, and the best interests of Corvallis citizens.
After a century, locked gates on the city watershed have not kept the problems out.
Jim Fairchild lives on and manages forestland adjacent to Corvallis Forest, and served for a decade on the Corvallis Watershed Management Advisory Commission. A finish carpenter by trade, he served on the Marys River Watershed Council Steering Committee and initiated their fish passage restoration project in Rock Creek, made possible through many collaborators and outside funding. He now serves on the Siuslaw N.F. Marys Peak Stewardship Group, funding restoration projects that benefit federal lands, and as Conservation Chair for Audubon Society of Corvallis.