by Saul Hubbard
November 26, 2013
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is seeking to roughly double timber harvests on Western Oregon’s federal forest land under a much-anticipated bill unveiled Tuesday.
Like a plan backed by Oregon U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader that passed the House this fall, Wyden’s bill would split in half the former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands, with half facing increased logging and the other half dedicated to conservation. Logging of “old growth” forest stands older than 120 years old would be prohibited on all 2.1 million acres.
Unlike the House bill, however, Wyden’s plan doesn’t create a state-run trust to take over management of the land where logging would increase. The senator from Oregon, along with environmental groups, had expressed concern that such a trust would circumvent key federal protections for the environment and endangered species on more than 1 million acres of Oregon forestland.
Wyden’s plan would ramp up timber production on the O&C lands to an average of between 300 million and 350 million board feet a year, well
above the 150 million board feet produced on average over the past decade, but less than the estimated 400 million to 500 million board feet a year that the House bill would allow.
Flanked by Gov. John Kitzhaber, prominent Oregon timber industry executives and some environmentalists at a Tuesday morning press conference, Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said his bill “can pass the Senate and get signed into law” — unlike the House plan for the O&C lands, which President Obama has said he would veto.
Wyden, who has been crafting his proposal with aides and prominent forestry scientists for much of the year, said it would put people back to work and provide a steady stream of revenue for cash-strapped Oregon timber counties, while avoiding large forest clear-cuts and generally protecting forest ecosystems.
“We have found a way to create good-paying jobs in rural Oregon and protect our natural treasures,” Wyden said. “And we did it by rejecting radical policies on both ends of the spectrum.
“This legislation ends the ‘stop-everything’ bureaucratic approach that beats even the most responsible timber projects into submission, and at the same time it acknowledges that the days of producing a nearly billion-foot (annual) cut are not coming back.”
Reactions to the plan were swift — and divided — Tuesday.
While a handful of environmental groups offered mild to strong support, most major environmental organizations slammed the proposal as “a bad deal” that would undermine efforts to restore Oregon’s “old growth” forests under the Northwest Forest Plan, a timber compromise reached in the early 1990s.
Environmentalists took issue with several facets of the bill, including the proposed cut method and Wyden’s efforts to reduce the amount of environmental analyses required for timber sales.
Wyden is proposing a practice known as “ecological forestry,” championed by forestry professors Norm Johnson of Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin from the University of Washington. The practice mandates that loggers leave untouched around a third of the trees in any individual stand and allow scrubs and brush to grow unperturbed on the forest floor after the cut.
“It’s fundamentally different ecologically” from clear-cuts on private forestland, Franklin said. “This will sustain most of the forest processes and animals even when you’re harvesting. (Clear-cutting) terminates the forest system completely.”
Josh Laughlin of Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands, who has visited test sites of the forestry practice in Southern Oregon, disagreed.
“It’s basically a clear-cut with retention patches (of trees) here and there,” he said.
Laughlin acknowledged that the practice “is apples and oranges compared to what happens on private forestlands” and that it could create “potentially useful” forest habitat.
“But,” he added, “should we see it across half the O&C lands? No.”
Wyden’s bill also proposes conducting only two environmental impact studies — one for “moist” northern forests, one for “dry” southern forests — shortly after the legislation is enacted, which would then remain valid for all timber sales for a decade. It would require all legal challenges to a 10-year logging plan to be filed within 30 days of the plan being finalized. That’s a significant shift from current policy where all individual timber sales can require an environmental analysis and there are few limits on legal challenges.
But Wyden argued that environmentalists use the current system to drag out timber sales, creating instability for logging companies and their workforces.
Under the bill, “we give everybody one bite at the apple for 10 years, in a very tight time window,” he said.
Chandra LeGue, a field coordinator for Oregon Wild, described the proposed review process as “extremely disappointing.” She said the “vast majority” of timber sales currently go through unchallenged, but environmentalists “need to hold (forest managers) accountable” on controversial individual sales.
“Without that ability to get site-specific environmental reviews, it takes the level of scrutiny (of timber harvesting) up to the 30,000-foot view rather than the 300-foot view,” she said.
Mixed reviews also came Tuesday from leaders of timber-dependent counties and logging industry interests.
Wyden’s plan is estimated to create approximately 1,650 jobs, and Oregon O&C counties would get at least 75 percent of all timber revenue.
But the proposed level of harvest is far too low to produce enough revenue to replace the federal timber payments that the O&C counties now receive. The payments were designed to compensate rural counties for revenue they lost after environmental concerns caused a sharp decline in logging on federal lands.
This year, Oregon’s O&C counties, including Lane County, will receive $35 million in timber payments. While no annual revenue estimate for those counties from Wyden’s bill is available yet, Wyden’s staff projects that to generate the equivalent $35 million, annual timber production would have to hit 700 million to 800 million board feet.
That’s a political impossibility, Wyden said, and that’s why he is working on a broader companion measure — set to be introduced next year — that would stabilize “safety net” federal funding to all local governments that produce natural resources.
Given Obama’s threat to veto the House-approved O&C bill, Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken said he supports Wyden’s proposal, referring to it as “the plan timber counties have been waiting for.”
“This bill is the best opportunity we have for a long-term solution that will produce jobs in the woods, build on Lane County’s important recreation economy, and support the critical services like public safety that the O&C counties desperately need,” he said.
Conversely, Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner who heads the Association of O&C Counties, said counties are not certain that the bill would provide a dependable supply of timber revenue.
Nick Smith, a spokesman for pro-timber Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, said the proposal would not “provide the level of certainty and job creation as compared to the bipartisan” House bill.
“Citizens in Western Oregon’s rural, forested communities deserve a solution that actually fixes the problems plaguing Western Oregon’s O&C forestlands,” he said. “We believe the most important measurement of any solution is the number of jobs it will support and create for rural Oregonians.”
Wyden said he will make passing his O&C bill his top priority in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in 2014.
“I’m going to do everything I can to move this quickly next year,” he said.