Balancing act

Sen. Ron Wyden's long-awaited plan to ramp up timber harvests on O&C lands in Western Oregon has landed with a thud. Judging from the reactions of interest groups on both sides of the issue, it seems nobody likes Wyden's bill — which means it may have a chance of actually becoming law.

That's not a sure thing by any means. But it may be the best hope for ending the impasse over forest management and generating some jobs and some certainty for cash-strapped timber counties.

Wyden's proposal would double annual timber harvests on the former Oregon & California Railroad lands, the proceeds of which are shared between 18 counties and the federal Treasury. It also would create new wilderness, designate new Wild and Scenic rivers and protect old-growth trees from being cut.

Wyden's plan would retain environmental review of timber sales, but front-load the process to approve 10 years of harvests ahead of time, permitting court challenges thereafter only in extraordinary circumstances. His plan also would leave the federal Bureau of Land Management in control of the timber lands.

That's just one difference between the Wyden plan and that backed by U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader. The House bill would turn over most of the O&C lands to a state trust.

The House bill, which passed in September, also would cut enough timber to pump $90 million back into rural county coffers. Wyden's proposal would not even match the $35 million in Secure Rural Schools money acting as a safety net to those counties. Wyden would make up the difference with some federal payments, but those would be partially offset by increased timber sale receipts.

The House plan is doomed to likely failure in the Senate, and even if it somehow passes, President Obama has promised to veto it because it removes public timber lands from federal control. Wyden also opposes that transfer — and he's realistic about what can make it through a deeply divided Congress and be signed by the president.

Cue the critics.

The Association of O&C Counties said it would undertake a "line-by-line analysis" of Wyden's proposal before passing judgment, but declared itself "steadfastly supportive" of the doomed House bill.

The environmental group Oregon Wild dismissed Wyden's plan as well, saying it would "strongly oppose" the bill because it is "heavily weighted towards clearcut logging" — something Wyden insists his measure does not allow.

The Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center didn't invoke the c-word, but declared that "the Northwest Forest Plan provides the best framework to date" for managing forests. The Northwest Forest Plan has famously never produced as much timber as it was intended to, and has allowed groups such as KS Wild to use the courts to stop timber sales.

Wyden's plan is a compromise in the best sense of the word. It offers increased protections for wild lands and rivers while carefully increasing timber harvests where possible, not to the level that would restore full county payments, but enough to offer some stability to resource-dependent communities while creating jobs in the woods and the mills.

County officials backing the House bill should realize it will never pass the Senate, and give Wyden's approach a chance. Environmental groups should recognize that Wyden's plan offers protections they have long sought and embrace the possibility of compromise.

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