Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice
Eugene, Oregon March 2–5, 2017
The Citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon—How One Community Started to Fight for Their Drinking Water, and Ended Up Fighting for Us All
Presented by: Nancy Webster, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Kate Taylor, Frigate Adventure Travel; Steve Perry, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Jason Gonzales, Oregon Wild.
This panel featured citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon who experienced the destruction of their local watersheds by clearcutting. The panelists spoke about their experiences throughout the clearcutting process, including their frustrations with inaction from both the local and state governments.
Rockaway Beach, a small town on the northern Oregon coast, relies on Jetty Creek for its freshwater supply. One panelist described the creek as “a crevice between hills, but it’s our lifeline.” Yet, from 2003–2014, timber companies removed eighty-two percent of the trees around Jetty Creek. Overall, timber companies have removed ninety percent of the trees from Jetty Creek. Often, these companies performed aerial sprays of “chemical cocktails” over the trees before and after clearcutting. The State of Oregon does not require timber companies to release information about what chemicals these sprays contain, nor does the state provide notice to locals before sprays occur. The Oregon Forestry Practices Act contains almost no requirements for watershed protection. Furthermore, the City of Rockaway Beach, the municipality with regulatory authority of Jetty Creek, does not require any notification or information on the contents of chemicals.
The combination of a lack of regulatory oversight and an acquiescence to the timber industry has effectively ruined Jetty Creek. Since clearcutting began, levels of trihalomethanes in Jetty Creek have rapidly increased and are far beyond the EPA’s suggested levels. The turbidity of Jetty Creek has also increased, reducing fish populations. Further, logging has negatively impacted bird and beaver populations, forcing animals away from an otherwise seemingly wild landscape and creating a the appearance of a “Silent Spring.” The reduced water quality has also forced Rockaway Beach residents to drink from packaged water bottles. Some residents keep water dispensers in their homes. This is the only alternative the City of Rockaway Beach has to Jetty Creek, as leaky septic systems and percolating seawater have made the area’s groundwater unsafe for consumption.
These are not the only problems that locals have experienced at the hands of the timber industry. Panelist Kate Taylor, for example, commented on how the logging negatively impacts water-tourism. Taylor is a professional fishing guide who works in the area, and she recounted the negative experiences her customers have when the river they are fishing turn to “chocolate mud” because of nearby logging. When she asked the Oregon Department of Forestry about this issue, the agency became “defensive” and did not assist her. Taylor’s experience mirrored the other panelists’ struggles to bring their issues to the attention of city, county, and state government officials.
When the panelists initially sought to confront the issue, they approached their local, municipal governments, but the Rockaway Beach City Council rejected all efforts against the timber industry. The panelists believed the city is clinging on to a cultural string, instead of supporting local economic growth. After inaction by the local government, the citizens turned to the state. The state responded without any tangible policy change. The state, like the local government, seemed too tied to the cultural idea Oregon’s logging industry. This steadfast protection of the timber industry does not produce economic gain. For example, logging companies are not allowed to perform aerial chemical sprays on federal lands in Oregon. The state’s use of aerial chemical sprays is simply a concession to the industry.
Frustrated with the state and city, the citizens performed “citizen science” to prove to regulators that the logging industry has been negatively affecting watersheds. Through citizen action, the panelists and other members of the public have created a series of legislative proposals to limit aerial spraying in the timber industry. Oregon Democratic State Senator Michael E. Dembrow recently sponsored Senate Bill 892, also known as “The Timber Aerial Spray Right to Know” Bill. This bill was accompanied by Senate Bill 500, which provides agriculturalists with a cause of action for damages resulting from timber companies that conduct aerial sprays.
Overall, any short-term gains in the legislature will prove insufficient. The panelists warned that other parts of the Oregon coast, notably Short Sands Beach, are in imminent danger of succumbing to the same fate as Jetty Creek. The only true way to prevent watershed destruction in Oregon, the panelists contended, is to fundamentally reshape the state’s approach to the timber industry.
Image: Sunset on Rockaway Beach, Oregon. Flickr user Jake Melara, Creative Commons.