Wyden's bill would double timber harvest

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wants to double the timber harvest on 2.1 million acres of O&C timber lands in Western Oregon while streamlining environmental reviews and permanently protecting nearly half of the land with a conservation emphasis.

In his proposed Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013, being announced this morning, the Democratic senator calls for increasing the harvest to a little over 300 million board feet annually. The yearly harvest in the past decade has averaged about 150 million board feet, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land.

The bill would provide the first-ever legislative ban on old-growth timber on O&C lands and support expanding wilderness in the lower Rogue River drainage.

"It uses the best available science to mimic natural processes and create healthier, more diverse forests," Wyden said in a prepared statement. "My philosophy is that forest policy should be dictated by science, not lawyers."

The legislation would amend the original Oregon and California Lands Act passed in 1931. The 18 O&C counties in Western Oregon depend on timber receipts from former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands in lieu of taxes for their annual budgets. Because of reduced harvests, the counties have become cash-strapped in recent years.

Wyden, a Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the proposal will take the old-growth harvest controversy off the table, uphold environmental laws and give the state an economic boost.

In a conference call with the Mail Tribune Monday afternoon, Wyden said the legislation would provide a sustained timber yield in forest emphasis areas. Specifically, old-growth stands in wetter forests more than 120 years old and trees over 150 years old across the O&C landscape could not be harvested, he said.

A BLM analysis has concluded that more than 300 million board feet of timber can be harvested annually at a sustained yield for 20 years, he said.

"We believe that will bring about the predictability and certainty of investment that rural Oregon needs," he said. "This is about creating more private sector jobs in the woods. This is about providing certainty so that work can go forward."

He took environmental hardliners to task, referring to them as the "Stop Everything Brigade," which he accused of trying to halt nearly all forest management that involves timber harvest.

"Even the threat of litigation produces a chilling effect on investment," he said. "This bill stipulates that you get one bite at the apple."

Only once during a 10-year period can a group litigate against the bill for the entire area, unless there are extraordinary circumstances, he said.

"Right now, folks can sue and block sales at any time, often years after a plan was agreed to," he said. "What this legislation does is shrink that window to 30 days near the beginning of the process."

Once that 30-day period ends, a timber management plan could go forward unobstructed for the next 10 years, he said.

"That's the key," he said. "You are not putting a lock on the courthouse door. What we are doing is putting it (legal process) at the front end and having a tight deadline. Once the plan comes out, you don't get to appeal an individual sale unless there are exceptional circumstances."

The bill would eliminate individual environmental impact statements now required for each timber sale, replacing them with two large-scale environmental impact statements with one each for dry and moist forests.

However, the bill has a strong environmental component, he said, noting it is the first ever to protect old-growth trees on O&C lands.

"The bill creates 87,000 acres of wilderness, 165 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers and conserves nearly 1 million acres of O&C lands," he said. "I think it will really drive recreation's economic engine in O&C counties."

Another bill now in the House also seeks to amend the 1931 bill.

The O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, co-authored by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, would place the O&C land into two trusts. In that bill, roughly half of the land would be managed by the U.S. Forest Service for conservation, while the remainder would focus on sustainable timber production to help fund county coffers.

It also would add 58,100 acres to the Rogue Wilderness Area in the lower Rogue River drainage and designate 93 miles of 35 tributaries of the Rogue River as either "wild," "scenic" or "recreational" under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

"There is a difference between the two bills — we do not set aside the federal environmental laws which they do," Wyden said.

Wyden said he believes because of its balanced approach, his bill can pass the U.S. Senate.

"The whole Oregon delegation is united on the fundamentals," he said. "We need to get the timber harvest up. Our rural communities have taken a ferocious beating.

"This is about showing you can have both jobs and environmental protection," he added. "We need to strike a balance. The alternative is unacceptable."

In a prepared statement released by Wyden's office, George McKinley of the Southern Oregon Forest Restoration Collaborative said Wyden has succeeded in balancing conservation and economic productivity in the bill.

"This legislation charts a middle path towards long-term forest management that values old growth trees and wildlife habitat, reduced fire, and the economic importance of forest jobs in rural communities," McKinley said.

Wyden's efforts were also lauded by Jerry Franklin, professor of forest ecology at the University of Washington, and Norm Johnson, his counterpart at Oregon State University.

"In my 50 years of studying and managing old-growth forests, this legislation is the most comprehensive in recognizing the natural processes that sustain these forests and in applying them through ecological forestry," Franklin said.

Allyn Ford, president of Roseburg Forest Products, said the bill would provide a sustainable supply of timber while "taking an innovative approach to modernizing environmental laws that have long led to gridlock."

But Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild in Portland, had a different perspective. He had talked to Wyden by phone about the bill Sunday night.

"This is an effort to split the baby," Pedery told the Mail Tribune on Monday. "The problem is that it doesn't give you a healthy baby at the end of the process.

"From what I know at this point, it is unworkable," he added. "It is unworkable at the national level of how it handles the Endangered Species Act, how it sets precedent on land management around the country and how it doesn't stack up with the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan."

Pedery said though his group has worked closely with Wyden on past legislation, it won't support the bill.

"We appreciate Senator Wyden trying to offer a better alternative, but I think most in the environmental community expected better from the senator," he said. "But we recognize the pressure he is under."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Share This Story