USDA Forest Service

Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute

This research program is no longer active.
Education Links
Information Providers
Managing Disturbance Regimes
Pacific Northwest Research Station
USFS Research & Development
Evaluate Our Service
Your comments and suggestions are very important to our service improvement.

Pacific Northwest Research Station
Blue Mountains National Resources Institute

Forestry and Range Sciences Laboratory
1401 Gekeler Lane
La Grande, OR 97850

United States Forest Service.

BMNRI Home > Publications > Search For A Solution > Chapter 10


Search For A Solution: Sustaining the Land, People, and Economy of the Blue Mountains


Barry C. Moore and Laurie Flaherty


Although much progress has been made in our understanding of the linkages between upland, riparian, and aquatic ecosystems, in public perception of the importance of riparian areas, and in actual management of many western riparian lands, in some respects there has been little substantative movement away from the turn-of-the-century views of riparian areas as sacrificial zones. We cannot fail to have, on occasion, detected a similar view of riparian buffers as areas (or at least their potential productivity) that must be sacrificed in order to continue or permit use of uplands. In the extreme (but probably too common) case, the attitude is that the potential for commodity production in riparian zone buffers must be sacrificed in order to placate environmental and regulatory concerns.

Such attitudes are not just unfortunate, they lead to perpetuation of the same mistakes and mismanagement that has too often characterized past activities. Too often, implementation of riparian management is simply a rote application of prescribed buffer zone widths. Ephemeral, intermittent, and lower-order perennial streams may not even receive protection under such rote compliance. However, cumulatively, the watersheds serving these streams often constitute the majority of source areas for annual sediment and nutrient loading. Rote application of riparian buffer standards also leads to overprotection in some areas and underprotection in others. Some might view this as a necessary consequence of the need for regulatory uniformity. Unfortunately for aquatic systems, such protection does not balance out; damage to the system inevitably occurs in the unprotected sections.

Some may reasonably point to the progress in implementing better management on many lands throughout the country and certainly in the Blue Mountains region. Improved riparian areas, restoration of water quality, habitats, and aquatic ecosystems have certainly occurred in localized areas. However, aquatic scientists see everywhere the continued decline of stream biota and aquatic ecosystems. Certainly, the continuing decline and loss of salmonid stocks throughout the drainages of the Northwest offers strikingly vivid testimony to the cumulative effects of large, regional disturbances on hydrology, habitat, and water quality. We may have made progress, but that progress is glaringly inadequate.

Part of the problem is the lack of clear data on the effects of land use activities on aquatic ecosystems. As pointed out previously, sometimes the wrong yardsticks for evaluation are applied. Research conclusions may be misinterpreted or expanded beyond their true significance. We have too often, for example, heard managers conclude that because drinking water quality standards were not exceeded after a single clearcutting activity, this constituted proof of the nonsignificance of such activities. However, even the most cursory inspection of aquatic ecosystems in these watersheds reveals extreme and long-lasting damage. Water quality standards should be viewed as one-dimensional criteria that provide only one portion of the key in assessing health of aquatic ecosystems.

We conclude that a vital component of future land management in the Blue Mountains (and elsewhere) must be the application of appropriate monitoring and evaluation tools for assessing aquatic ecosystems and habitats. The situation is very much analagous to the calls for "Ecosystem Management" in terrestrial landscapes. Just as we must be concerned for the health of forests and other terrestrial systems, the health of aquatic ecosystems is the key to restoration of productive fisheries and other functional values. Much attention and progress on ecosystem-level evaluation tools for aquatic environments has been made in the past decade, and their widespread application to prevention, reduction, and regulation of non-point sources associated with land use is long overdue.

Ecosystem-level evaluations of aquatic environments have taken several forms that may be appropriate in various contexts. An excellent background discussion of the subject may be found in Karr (1991). Diversity indices and metrics based on benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrate populations have been successfully used for some time (for example, Shannon and Weaver 1949; Hilsenhoff 1982, 1987). Benthic invertebrate communities respond to physical, chemical, and biological alterations of their habitats, and quantitative relations between changes in diversity and disturbance, particularly organic pollutants, have been established. Similarly, indices of biological integrity based on fish communities have been successfully applied to assess effects from point and non-point sources (e.g., Karr 1981, 1987; Karr et al. 1985, 1986, 1987; Fausch et al. 1984, 1990). Standard protocols for assessments of biological integrity have been developed by the Ohio EPA (1988) and by the U.S. EPA (EPA's "Rapid Bioassessment Protocols," Plafkin et al. 1989). The specific metrics employed for indices of biological integrity must be adapted on a regional basis (such as the ecoregional approach, see, for example, Omernick 1987); however, the approach has been successful in a wide variety of geographic regions and stream disturbances (summarized in Karr 1991).

A similar approach is the development of habitat suitability models for individual fish species. Such models incorporate quantitative and qualitative assessment of physical, chemical, and biological factors that affect all aspects of fish life cycles. The models produce a numerical rating mathematically adjusted to fall between 0 and 1 and provide very powerful tools in assessing temporal changes and responses of aquatic habitats to management actions or disturbances. Models have been developed for numerous North American species (Simonson et al. 1994). Obviously, an index modeled for a specific species of concern should be used to evaluate management effects on that species (for example, see the model for chinook salmon, Raleigh et al. 1986). However, models for more widely distributed species can permit larger, regional comparisons (for example, creek chub, McMahon 1982). We believe that habitat suitability index models, indices of biological integrity, and similar metrics should become the principal tools for monitoring effects and changes in aquatic ecosystems throughout the Blue Mountains region.

In conclusion, terms such as uplands, riparian areas, wetlands, and aquatic ecosystems are artifical boundaries imposed on natural ecosytems for the convenience of human communication and comprehension. In reality, these are intimately interacting components of larger, complex ecosystems. This integral nature of terrestrial and aquatic resources necessitates that land managers must take a broader, landscape view. Modern resource management should be an interdisciplinary exercise, involving watershed managers, hydrologists, aquatic ecologists, fisheries biologists, and geologists specializing in fluvial geomorphology as well as more traditional land management disciplines.

Throughout this chapter, we have suggested that more research is required on most every management issue examined. Given the complexity of ecosystems, uncertainties as to effects of various management decisions will always persist. Yet, while many issues remain to be settled, much about managing terrestrial systems to protect aquatic environments is certainly known, a sense of which we hope this chapter has also conveyed. Current conditions in the Blue Mountains regarding forest health concerns, issues posed by threatened and endangered northwest salmonid populations, and the general decline in aquatic resources throughout the region can aptly be termed crisis conditions. These crises preclude time to test all possible hypotheses before making decisions. Therefore, just as Soule (1986) called for conservation scientists to use the "best hypothesis" available in such crises, so must managers have the courage to implement new approaches based on the best scientific information and their best professional judgement. Regulatory and resource management agencies must all also have the courage to move beyond simplistic measures such as water quality alone, and to employ the best tools available for assessing and ultimately, for protecting, both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Contents of Chapter Ten:

  • Introduction
  • Riparian Areas
  • General Description
  • Functions and Components of Healthy Riparian Areas
  • Interrelatedness with Upland and Aquatic Ecosystems
  • Current Status of Western Riparian Areas
  • Water Quality
  • Fish
  • General Information
  • Current Status
  • General Salmonid Requirements
  • Dams—The Columbia River Power System
  • Spawning Habitat
  • Rearing Habitat
  • Fisheries Management—General
  • Land Use Effects and Management Strategies
  • Grazing Effects
  • Grazing Management Strategies
  • Forestry Effects
  • Forestry Management Strategies
  • Fire and Other Natural Disturbances
  • Salvage Logging versus Fire
  • Conclusions

US Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station, Blue Mountains National Resources Institute
Last Modified: Monday, 16 December 2013 at 14:18:43 CST

USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.