Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has unveiled a bill to balance competing demands on more than two million acres of federal forest land in the state. So far, opinions differ on whether he’s found an approach that can resolve this long-standing tug-of-war.
Flanked by Governor John Kitzhaber, the Senate Democrat said his bill hit the sweet spot between conservation and cutting timber.
Ron Wyden: “We have found a way to create good-paying jobs in rural Oregon, and protect our natural treasures.”
At issue are the so-called O&C lands. That‘s a checkerboard of forested sections in 18 counties in western Oregon. The name comes from a failed 19th century land grant to the Oregon and California Railroad. Starting in the mid-1930s, the lands were managed so as to provide timber revenue to those counties in lieu of property taxes. When timber harvests were cut back under the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan, those counties were given federal funds to help replace some of those lost timber money. But that support has been steadily shrinking and county officials have slashed public services as their budgets have shrunk. Senator Wyden says his bill will help halt that slide.
Ron Wyden: “This approach substantially increases the timber that goes to our mills, and it creates certainty. Certainty for our working families, certainty for our counties, certainty for every employer who we’d like to see invest in the future of our timber communities.”
Under Wyden’s plan, timber harvest from the O&C lands would double to about 300 million board feet per year. That’s just a fraction of the peak harvests of the 1980s, and Tom Partin, with the American Forest Resources Council in Portland, says forest health requires more robust management.
Tom Partin: “We’ve seen large fires over the landscape over the O&C lands, with Biscuit and 94,000 acres burning up this year. Without taking a substantial amount of the growth off on a yearly basis we’re going to continue to see these large fires.”
Partin also says he’s concerned the harvest levels envisioned under the Wyden bill won’t provide enough economic boost, either to employment or to county tax revenue … Wyden’s bill would provide protection for old growth forests and add 87,000 acres of wilderness. But Dominick DellaSala isn’t sold …
Dominick DellaSala: “We’ve already pushed these forests to the brink.”
DellaSala is chief scientist at the Ashland-based Geos Institute, an environmental science group. He compares the forest debate to a game of Jenga.
Dominick DellaSala: “Over time, we have pulled most of the blocks that have maintained the stability of these ecosystems for over millennia. So we’re fighting over the last few blocks.”
Dellasala says the Wyden bill would pull back protections that have been in place under the Northwest Forest Plan … One way Wyden’s bill would provide the certainty he spoke of would be to limit legal challenges to logging projects. It calls for two large-scale environmental reviews, one for the wetter western side of the mountains, the other for the drier eastern side. Those reviews would be good for 10 years, and after they were settled on, no further legal challenges would be allowed. Joseph Vaile, with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, sees problems with that.
Joseph Vaile: “We’re concerned that bad projects won’t be able to be stopped.”
Over the years, Vaile’s group has filed a number of legal actions to stop logging sales. He says doing environmental assessments covering hundreds of thousands of acres won’t provide the information needed to make smart decisions.
Joseph Vaile: “What kind of analysis can they really do on timber sales in, say the Applegate Valley of southwest Oregon, when they’re doing their analysis at that scale?”
The Wyden bill is a counter to a bi-partisan timber bill which passed the House in September, but which has elements that Wyden says makes it dead on arrival in the Senate. Wyden hopes his approach will thread the needle and get the support needed from both houses of Congress and the president to make it into law.