Rings of resistance: Local governments as barriers to watershed protection

Have you seen the bumper sticker, “The climate is changing. Why aren’t we?” Does it make you want to change your lifestyle to save the planet?  Great! Things like becoming a vegan, biking to work, installing solar panels, giving up your gas guzzler, or avoiding plastic are all changes that individuals can make to be part of the needed change.

But we can’t be ALL the change. We have to demand that governments—from city councils and county commissioners to state and congressional representatives — use their power to make the big changes that are needed.

To start on the community level, take a look at the Corvallis Forest. Here is a city-owned forested property, part of the watershed that provides the city’s highest quality water. The Corvallis Forest has some of the best old-growth stands in the Coast Range. But the city has a history of managing this priceless asset as a cash cow, logging it for timber revenue, rather than valuing it as a priceless natural provider of pure mountain water (see long-time watershed advocate, Dr. Betsy Herbert Corvallis Forest Timeline).

The city must change its vision for the Corvallis Forest, away from timber management and towards watershed protection and carbon storage. This turnaround would showcase Corvallis as an example for 15 other cities in western Oregon that own and manage forested watershed land. Corvallis could be proud of forging ahead with this new vision in the face of climate change. If public comments received so far are any indication, such a change would be widely welcomed by area residents.

The “Corvallis Forest Stewardship Plan” is being updated now. It’s a slow process, with layers of resistance to change. The top layer is the city council, a group of elected officials charged with making complex and controversial decisions that affect a myriad of city services. They make these decisions in the face of an over-stretched budget. To assist with updating the Corvallis Forest Stewardship Plan, the mayor appointed an advisory task force, composed of “experts” to oversee public meetings and recommend a new plan.

This task force is the second layer of resistance to change. Appointees include a former Corvallis public works director and a retired Siuslaw National Forest planner who previously designed a massive logging project in the city’s watershed. These men are committed to keeping timber management as the primary goal of the Corvallis Forest. Worse still, the task force has no forest hydrologist, no soil scientist, no fire scientist or terrestrial biologist. Such experts reside in our community, but haven’t been invited to participate.

The third layer of resistance to change is the Corvallis Public Works staff. They are committed to guarding their power over the watershed. This power allows them to generate annual timber revenue, which they have used to subsidize water rates, infrastructure needs and staff salaries. They keep the watershed closed to the public, ostensibly to protect water quality, but effectively preventing anyone but them from assessing how the forest is being managed. Dedicated to keeping the status quo, they’ve stonewalled requests for water quality data and for an accounting of past timber revenues and expenditures.

How do we penetrate this multi-layered resistance to change? The Oregon Chapter Conservation Committee has been an active voice at these meetings, as have other local groups like Friends of the Corvallis Watershed, but it’s not enough.

Action Item: Residents of Corvallis, all of whom drink the water, must DEMAND a change in how this forest is managed. Show up at city council meetings, task force meetings. Write emails to your elected officials. Write letters to the editor.