Keeping it cool

It's too bad a landowner got fined, but there's a good reason for riparian rules

James Harkcom found out the hard way that it's against the law to trim trees along the banks of the Rogue River and other streams without a permit from the county. Maybe other riverfront landowners will learn from his situation — and everyone will benefit from healthier fish habitat, which is the point of the law.

Property-rights activists will see this as one more example of heavy-handed government dictating what they can do on their own land. Maybe they would rather live along a river devoid of salmon because the water is too warm for the fish to survive.

Living in a civilized society along with other people means having to curtail some activities that infringe on the freedom of others or damage the natural environment to the detriment of everyone's quality of life. City dwellers can't blast their stereos at all hours without risking a citation, or let garbage pile up on their property.

By the same token, those who buy property along fish-bearing streams are subject to limitations on what they can do in the riparian setback from the river's edge. As Harkcom discovered, the setback along the Rogue is 75 feet. On the Applegate River, it's 50 feet.

The doesn't mean he doesn't own the property or can't use it. It does mean he can't remove trees or vegetation that shade the water or, as he discovered, prune tree limbs that do the same thing, without getting a permit from the county and consulting with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife first.

Water temperature is critically important to the health of fish runs. When the water gets too warm, salmon eggs incubate too quickly, and young fish hatch before there is sufficient food for them to survive.

Trees keep the water cool, and lower vegetation contributes as well, creating "microclimates" that keep warmer air from blowing across the river. Ground-level vegetation prevents riverbank rocks from absorbing the sun's heat.

Private property owners are not the only ones affected by state laws governing river temperature. The city of Medford is spending a great deal of money to plant trees along the Rogue and its tributaries to offset the warm water its sewage treatment plant discharges into the river.

A story in the July 14 Mail Tribune described such a project at Red Lily Vineyards along the Applegate River. The city is paying to remove nonnative Himalayan blackberries and plant native tree species to cast shade across the river.

While the city will spend $8 million on this and other projects along the Rogue and its tributaries, the work will prevent it from having to spend twice that amount to install chillers at the treatment plant to cool the effluent.

It's unfortunate that Harkcom ran afoul of rules he didn't know about. But his case should help spread the word to other landowners.

In the end, the fish runs — and their contribution to a healthy environment and to the local economy — will benefit all of us.


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