Poor ecological health afflicts much of the Columbia River basin, a vast region encompassing nearly all of Idaho, most of Oregon and Washington and part of Montana, a new government study concludes.
The scientific report by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management examines 144 million acres of private and federal land, the largest area ever studied in such a manner, federal officials said Wednesday.
While a large section of the area is private agriculture land, much of it also is federally owned forest and rangeland that is susceptible to devastating fires.
Much of the region’s salmon habitat has been destroyed, although there still are pockets of healthy stocks that could be used as building blocks to restore the dwindling runs, said Tom Quigley, the scientist who headed the report.
The salmon runs that are doing best appear to cover parts of the region with the fewest roads, a finding that could have significant ramifications for logging and other commercial development, the report said.
But habitat improvement alone cannot restore the salmon runs, the report said.
Quigley said researchers were surprised at the extent to which fire “had changed such a vast landscape” and to which unwanted vegetation had altered range land.
The information is to be used to develop plans for managing the land as a single ecosystem, a change in philosophy from the old federal method of managing forest-by-forest, problem-by-problem, issueby-issue, said Tom Mills, director of the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.
But improvements will not occur overnight, Quigley said, even if the perfect management efforts are undertaken.
“These processes began 100 years or more ago,” he said. “It may take decades to reverse that trend and get it back to a state we call healthy.”
The Clinton administration ordered the study as an outgrowth of the process that led to the Northwest Forest Plan, which dealt with plans for protecting old-growth timber west of the Cascades.
The new report covers an area stretching from the crest of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, east across Idaho and through the northwestern corner of Montana, as well as small portions of Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.
The report concludes 45 percent of that area has “low ecological integrity,” meaning the ecosystem no longer functions as it did historically. Much of that land is agriculture and would not be targeted for restoration efforts.
But other areas are forests that have become unhealthy and susceptible to disease and insects, partly because of past federal management that introduced species of trees that fared poorly in that environment.
The study includes a map that shows the potential for “lethal fires” - those that destroy most of the vegetation - has grown dramatically.
xxxx FINDINGS Highlights of a report on the ecological and socio-economic conditions of the interior Columbia River basin, a 144-million-acre area including parts of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming: High intensity, stand replacement wildfires have increased by 20 percent on U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, a significant threat to ecological integrity, water quality, species recovery and homes in rural areas. A strong salmon population inhabits between 0.1 percent and 33 percent of its historical range. But enough habitat remains to possibly rebuild healthy salmon populations. Salmon habitat restoration and protection alone will not ensure healthy fish populations. The effects of dams, hatcheries and fish harvest must be addressed. Species that live in old forests, native grasslands and native shrublands have lost habitat, but the downward trends can be reversed by conservation and restoration. The basin’s economy is generally healthy. Only 4 percent of its economy depends directly on logging, grazing and mining from BLM and Forest Service lands. Associated Press