Wyden's draft for forests is opposed

Jackson County commissioners split along party lines in opposition Wednesday to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's proposed plan to break a gridlock over management of the state's forests.

Commissioners Jack Walker and C.W. Smith say the plan wouldn't make Oregon less susceptible to wildfires or streamline environmental reviews as Wyden claims.

"I wholeheartedly oppose the legislation of Sen. Wyden," said Walker. He said the proposed bill would be a detriment to the state's and the county's economy.

Walker and Smith, both Republicans, voted for a board order opposing the Democratic senator's legislation, known as the Oregon Forest Restoration and Old Growth Protection Act of 2009. The two commissioners based their opinion primarily on a report prepared by the Jackson County Natural Resource Advisory Committee that delved into Wyden's proposal.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour, a Democrat who voted against the order, said he was concerned about the tenor of it, particularly because Wyden has been extremely supportive of Jackson County through the years and during the economic downturn.

"It's biting the hand that feeds us," he said.

The order states, "The county concludes that the enactment of the proposed legislation would not result in achieving its stated purposes in achieving forest restoration and older growth protection, but would likely create an intolerably detrimental effect upon the government, the economy and the citizens of Jackson County."

Gilmour said the tenor of a letter written by Commissioner Smith to Wyden on June 24 is more conciliatory.

Smith, who is a county liaison to the National Resource Advisory Committee, stated in his letter, "I hope you will accept this order as a sincere effort to clarify the most salient issues as well as point out ways in which further drafts will have practical and inclusive approaches to a complex and broad forest landscape here in Oregon as well as the northwest."

Smith said the board order has nothing to do with the overall support Wyden has given this county. "I can't tell you how much we appreciate everything Sen. Wyden is doing," he said.

However, when a knowledgeable, professional citizen group determines that Wyden's proposal has problems, the commissioners need to take notice and act appropriately, he said.

Smith said the advisory committee is made up of Democrats and Republicans.

"We're not going to offend their intelligence by calling this a partisan issue," he said.

The advisory committee report criticized Wyden's plan for choosing an "arbitrary age" for old growth at 120 years in moist forests and 150 years in dry forests. The report found it would be difficult to make a determination about the age of every tree in a proposed project.

The report said developers of Wyden's plan didn't appear to use a broad range of experts in coming up with their findings.

Tom Towslee, spokesman for Wyden, said the proposed bill hasn't been introduced, and the "discussion draft" commissioners are referring to is intended to elicit comments and feedback from a variety of groups and forest-industry leaders. He expects the legislation will be introduced in about a month.

"The intent is to break the deadlock over forests," he said.

The proposed bill would set aside $50 million to carry out the act if it is approved.

Committees would be formed to oversee pilot thinning projects made up of federal Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, environmental organizations, timber and forest-products industry representatives, county governments, state or local representatives and labor organizations or nontimber forest-product harvester groups. The committees would have one year to certify a thinning project that can cover up to 25,000 acres.

So far, the legislation has received some negative comments, including from the environmental community, which doesn't think the plan does enough to protect forests, Towslee said.

"What we're really asking them to do is if they have some alternative language they want to offer, we're open to it," he said.

As to the age determination for old growth and other findings, Towslee said the plan is based on scientific studies from Oregon State University and the University of Washington.

"There is nothing arbitrary about it," he said.

Over the years, Towslee said there has been much debate over what makes an old-growth tree, but at some point there has to be some kind of agreement.

"We can quibble over the age of the trees," Towslee said.

However, he said Oregonians want to resolve the issue of old growth, while trying to get access to forests for thinning and to bring out materials that will benefit the economy.

Clearing out woody biomass material would make forests healthier, alleviating potentially devastating wildfires, he said.

Even though commissioners opposed the order, Gilmour said he didn't think it ultimately would carry much weight because of Wyden's stature in the Senate.

"It may be a feel-good order, but I don't feel there will be any consequences from it," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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