At a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden challenged critics of his Oregon logging bill to admit that they "may be a little bit wrong."
The Oregon Democrat, who chairs the committee, said his bill aims to resolve decades-old fights over how to manage more than 2 million acres of federal forests in Western Oregon known as the O&C lands. By designating some areas for conservation and others for timber harvest, it aims to strike a new balance between revenue from logging and environmental protection.
The bill would limit the environmental review process for logging in some designated harvest areas, while guaranteeing protection for trees over 120 years old.
While some of the witnesses at the hearing offered measured support or willingness to compromise on the bill, others did not.
Wyden addressed two witnesses who oppose the bill for different reasons. Dale Riddle, a vice president for Seneca Sawmill in Eugene, questioned whether the bill would actually avoid lawsuits and allow more timber sales to take place without removing roadblocks set by the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. Sean Stevens, director of the conservation group Oregon Wild, said the bill goes too far in unraveling the protections set by those two laws.
"It's hard to see how the two of you can both be right," Wyden said. "So the question, I think, is: Is it possible that you both may be a little bit wrong and that the other witnesses who have come here … that they may be right in terms of the effort to strike a balance?"
Wyden asked the two for help getting his bill passed.
"If we're going to get this done, we've got to find a way to bring people together," he said.
Stevens said Wyden's plan would prevent people from studying the impacts of individual timber sales once a broader environmental review has been conducted.
Wyden argued that all the stakeholders would have a chance to weigh in on a broader logging plan up front -– over a yearlong review period.
"All the stakeholders are going to be at the table so they have a chance to be heard," he said, "but once we get there, we're not going to have this policy that I've characterized where every tree has its own lawsuit."
Stevens, whose group has filed lawsuits to stop timber sales on federal lands, said the decision to go to court wasn't made lightly.
"I have to disagree with the fact that every tree has its own lawsuit," Stevens said. "Despite the way we've been characterized, we are not sitting in our wealthy homes thinking of ways to ruin rural America."
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon addressed the committee at the outset of the hearing. He co-sponsored a different bill in the House that would put more than a million acres of forestland into a state-managed trust to increase timber production. But he said even though that bill passed in the House, there's "a political reality" that prevents it from becoming law.
"Mr. Chairman, you've made it clear that a trust concept cannot pass the Senate and would likely face opposed by the Obama administration," The Springfield Democrat said. "I still think there are benefits to it. It's a pretty simple approach, but I acknowledge a political reality and I believe our agreed upon principles can be legislated through a different construct along the lines of the construct you've proposed."
DeFazio agreed to work on changes to Wyden's bill that would further increase timber revenues to counties.