Go to Site Index See "Articles" main page
24th March 2022
Logging forests takes this toll on already-strained Nooksack River, new research suggests


The Nooksack River is under enormous strain, as development brings its ecosystems to the brink of collapse and climate change chokes summer water supply by reducing the region’s annual snowpack. Recent research shows there is another party that should very likely be held partially responsible for the Nooksack’s dangerously low summer stream flows: The commercial forestry industry, which cuts down trees to sell as timber. Commercial forestry, including that done on state-managed forest land, could reduce late-summer stream flows in the Nooksack River’s South Fork by as much as 25% compared to a no-harvest scenario, said Oliver Grah, the Nooksack Indian Tribe’s water resources program manager, referencing computer simulations developed in partnership with Western Washington University professor Bob Mitchell and Washington-based environmental engineering firm Natural Systems Design. “That’s a huge amount of water that’s being eliminated,” Grah said. “We are not suggesting we stop commercial forestry, but we want it to be part of the discussion.” When asked to comment on these findings, Oregon-based company Hampton Lumber said that a majority of forests in Whatcom County are already off-limits to timber harvest.

“The remaining state and private forests provide good, year-round jobs, wood products, and taxes for the county,” wrote Kristin Rasmussen, the company’s director of public affairs and communications, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. In the Nooksack watershed, Hampton Lumber owns about 9,000 acres, she said. The Nooksack River watershed is roughly 830 square miles, or 531,200 acres. The river’s watershed is the largest drainage in Water Resource Inventory Area 1, a planning unit that is roughly 1,400 square miles, excluding a much smaller portion in Canada. Sierra Pacific Industries, which operates in Whatcom County and is one of the country’s largest lumber manufacturers, already leaves 15% to 20% of its private forests to provide riparian buffers and protect rivers and streams, company spokesperson Lisa Perry wrote in an email to The Herald. Perry cast doubt on the accuracy of the computer modeling results shared by Grah’s team, saying that some of the parameters used were “from small watersheds in other regions containing single age forests and different environmental conditions.” “As stakeholders in the region, we were brought into this project very recently, and shared our concerns about inaccurate assumptions and the use of research from different forest environments,” Perry wrote in an email. In response to these comments, Grah and his team stood behind the results, saying that they “are not and have not been presented as absolutes; rather, they have been presented as approximations of reality.”

He said that his team had engaged the commercial forestry industry in this work over the last five years and is open to hearing “more specifics on relevant science they believe invalidates or substantially questions the results of our application of best available locally applied science.”


Communities and the environment suffer when there is not enough water in the Nooksack River — farmers struggle to irrigate crops and spawning salmon die by the thousands in more shallow, warmer waters. As fish populations dwindle, treaty rights guaranteeing tribes access to traditional resources are threatened as well. Commercial timber companies own about 14% of land in Water Resource Inventory Area 1, which is essentially the Nooksack River drainage, said Kenny Ocker, a communications manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. Most commercial timber company-owned land is along the river’s South Fork. The department manages another 12% of land in the watershed, logging some of it to fund school construction and other public resources.

It’s not a shocking revelation that logging in the upper watershed, where the river begins, impacts stream flows, Grah said. It’s basic watershed science that the type, age and amount of vegetation influence how water moves through the system. In Grah’s opinion, the Tribe’s research results are impactful because they prove a need for timber companies to collaborate more with local stakeholders. “Commercial forestry hasn’t been part of that water discussion,” he said. The Tribe’s research addresses a “data gap” identified by Whatcom County staff regarding how forestry impacts local water supply, especially summer low-flow periods, said Chris Elder, Whatcom County’s watershed planner, in an email to The Bellingham Herald. The Tribe and its partners have plans to research how commercial forestry impacts high stream flows in the winter months as well, Grah said. Grah’s team began this work in 2014, but he said that it isn’t well-known because “nobody asked us to do the research.” However, he believes the results are “substantial enough that it should garner the attention of our community.”

Water availability and temperature concerns should matter to everyone, since public funds are spent addressing them, Grah said. Excessive water temperature is “nonpoint source pollution,” meaning it comes from many sources. It’s hard to pin down exactly who is responsible for impacts, so solutions end up being paid for by federal and state agencies, rather than polluters, he said. “When it comes to addressing non-point source pollution, the regulatory programs are not very strong,” Grah said. “You can’t say excessive temperatures are due to the actions of this landowner on this parcel.”

Logging companies do a “very good job” at complying with the state’s existing slew of environmental regulations, Grah said. However, he believes the rules themselves are flawed — regulations governing forest practices are designed to protect water quality but don’t include any measures that aim to increase or maintain stream flow.

Grah said he recently presented the Tribe’s findings to several commercial forestry representatives. Responses were mixed, Grah recalls, with many of the attendees remaining “very quiet.” “They understand the science we are presenting and are curious about it,” Grah said. “I think they are also very leery about it because it could be interpreted as us saying stop forestry in the upper watershed.” Grah said repeatedly that neither he nor the Tribe thinks logging should be completely halted, but he does think it should be done differently. Forests that are mature or old-growth should not be logged, Grah said. He classified mature forests as those older than 80 to 100 years old. “There’s not much of it left in the South Fork watershed,” he said. “It’s been so heavily harvested in the past. But every little bit counts.”

n higher-elevation areas where snow accumulates, “expansive clearcuts” should be replaced with smaller “gap cuts,” which leave bigger chunks of forest intact, Grah said. Snowpack melts slower in these shaded patches of trees, contributing water to the river during summer months. Grah also wants to see commercial forestry use longer “harvest rotations,” which allows trees to grow longer in between cuts. Older trees not only help combat climate change by storing more planet-warming carbon dioxide, but they keep more moisture in the watershed, Grah said. Young trees have been shown to transpire, or exhale water vapor into the atmosphere, faster than older trees. “Wind carries it away, so it’s a loss of water in the watershed,” he said. Grah believes logging companies should allow forests to grow for at least 80 years in between harvests. That’s a big jump compared to current practices: Commercial foresters in the Nooksack River basin generally manage forests on 30- to 55-year rotations, according to Ocker, the natural resources communications manager. The state uses rotations closer to Grah’s suggestion, allowing forests west of the Cascades mountain range to grow 60 to 80 years between logging. On top of climate and watershed benefits, some research has found that longer rotations increase the amount of timber a forest can produce. Logging a forest at 80 years rather than 40 years increases total timber production by 52%, according to modeling by the Northwest Natural Resource Group, which researches “ecological forestry.”

Yet waiting longer in between cuts does pose problems for landowners who need or want money in the near-term, as well as communities that rely on the timber industry for jobs. “Extending rotation ages to 80 years would constrict already limited timber supply, which would be very hard on local sawmills and the surrounding communities that manufacture wood products,” Rasmussen from Hampton Lumber wrote to The Herald in an email. What if commercial foresters could get paid to implement practices that increase summer stream flows in the Nooksack? This is an idea Grah explored, inspired by “carbon markets” that allow landowners to profit off of climate-friendly land management. However, the state’s complex water laws make this idea impossible to put into practice now: As soon as additional water enters the watershed, it becomes subject to water rights regulations, Grah said — logging companies can’t monetize something they don’t own. “It can only be enacted by legislative change,” Grah said. “That won’t happen overnight.”