'Too little, too late'

A special task force created to examine the future of logging on public lands in Oregon has completed a year of work. The result is, to put it charitably, underwhelming.

Last summer, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdrew the Bush administration's Western Oregon Plan Revisions, unflatteringly known as the WOPR, saying it could not be implemented under the Endangered Species Act. The Bureau of Land Management developed that plan in the wake of a lawsuit by the timber industry that successfully argued timber harvest targets under the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan had never been met.

Salazar was right; the WOPR called for greatly increased logging in sensitive areas and too close to streams, threatening wildlife and fish populations. It would not have survived inevitable court challenges from environmental groups.

Salazar created a task force to come up with a better way. What he got was a report that lays out all the reasons why timber harvests cannot increase under current environmental restrictions, and notes there is a great deal of mistrust between the timber industry and environmentalists.

It took a year to come up with that? The report managed to disappoint everyone, from the timber industry to environmentalists to members of Congress.

The report makes a number of recommendations, including creating new high-level committees to review the science used to create the WOPR and to explore ways to balance timber harvests with environmental protection. The best of these would create an executive steering committee encompassing the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce "to establish a common vision for the management of the Northwest forests and requirements of all government agencies in the regulation and management of the federal lands in the Pacific Northwest." Bringing together Agriculture and Interior, which oversee the Forest Service and BLM respectively, could be productive, because those agencies historically have had different approaches to managing public timber lands.

But overall, we agree with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other members of the state's congressional delegation, who called the report "too little, too late."

The report said the BLM in particular had been concentrating on thinning projects involving small-diameter trees in uncontroversial stands to avoid the legal battles that inevitably plague timber sales on public lands. The supply of those kinds of trees is dwindling, the task force said, and some BLM districts may run out of thinning projects within five years.

The Oregon congressional delegation has asked Salazar to meet with them to hear their ideas for ways to develop a long-term forest plan that works. He should do so.

He also should light a fire under the Fish and Wildlife Service to finish revising protections for the northern spotted owl so the timber management agencies know what the rules are.

Oregon's timber-dependent counties have been in limbo for too long. While timber harvests will never — and should never — return to their historic peak levels, a steady and predictable supply of timber ought to be achievable while protecting Oregon's environmental legacy.

More delay is unacceptable.

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