Oregon's year of reckoning — the status quo is not an option for forests

Oregon is in financial trouble. Federal management of forestland, especially the unique O&C lands, has failed. This failure has contributed to a deep recession with high unemployment and loss of revenue necessary for public services.

The O&C lands were transferred to private ownership in exchange for construction of a railroad in the late 1800s, but the lands reverted back to federal ownership in 1915 because the railroad violated the grant terms. The U.S. continued a policy of land disposal until 1937, when Congress passed the O&C Act, retaining the remaining O&C lands and dedicated them to permanent forest production to provide revenue for county government services. The lands are located in a checkerboard pattern of small parcels spread across 18 counties in Western Oregon. They are not part of the national forests.

The O&C Act requires that timber shall be "sold, cut and removed" in conformity with the principle of sustained yield. The O&C Act requires 50 percent of revenues generated from timber sales be paid to the 18 O&C counties.

Current policy is contrary to the mandate of the O&C Act. The Northwest Forest Plan embraced by the current administration was designed to create an old-growth forest on federal forest lands throughout the Northwest. Over 80 percent of the O&C lands are reserved for spotted owl habitat. Timber harvest is restricted to thinning small trees, which cannot be sustained for more than a few years on the O&C lands. This is not "sustained yield" as required by the O&C Act.

Late last year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar held two meetings to find a way to protect old-growth forests while providing jobs and a steady timber supply to benefit cash-strapped communities. As a result, Salazar established three pilot projects in southwestern Oregon. The projects focus on thinning forests to reduce the risk of wildfire and insect infestations with very small amounts of regeneration harvest. He wants these projects to lead to a 20-year management plan for the O&C lands.

The pilot projects will not resolve the core issues that have been plaguing the Northwest for 20 years. Environmental groups demand a halt to all timber harvest except thinning of very small trees. These groups have no intention of allowing sustained yield management. They will continue to file lawsuits claiming that timber harvest is destroying endangered species habitat. After the meetings with Salazar, environmental groups filed a lawsuit on an O&C thinning sale, claiming that logging would destroy spotted owl habitat, even though the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found there would be no significant impact to the owl.

The management approach Salazar proposed also will not resolve the issue pertaining to sustained yield. Thinning the forest cannot be sustained over a long period and therefore cannot provide a permanent source of timber that can be harvested under the principle of sustained yield. Thinning without substantial regeneration harvest violates the O&C requirement of sustained yield.

Special legislation was passed in 2000 to help counties cope with the loss of timber harvest revenue. The county payments program will have provided approximately $1 billion to 18 urban and rural O&C counties when the safety net program expires at the end of 2011. Absent very substantial increases in timber sales, continuation of safety net payments will be essential to continue services such as law enforcement, health and safety, juvenile services and other public programs. Renewal will be extremely difficult given concerns for the nation's budget deficit.

Business as usual must end. The Oregon delegation must jointly introduce legislation that allows the BLM to carry out its mandate under the O&C Act by exempting or modifying Endangered Species Act procedures for this unique category of lands.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded that the no jeopardy responsibility covers only discretionary actions and does apply to actions that an agency is required to take. If federal management cannot be made to work with new legislation, then Congress should transfer all the lands to the State of Oregon to be managed under the principles of the O&C Act. Consideration also should be given to the Association of O&C Counties' proposal to preserve 1.2 million acres of O&C land for old growth with the sale of a similar number of acres that have been cut over or burned and have extensive road systems. The proceeds from land sales would provide a permanent trust fund for the benefit of Oregon's 18 O&C counties.

There are options, but the status quo is not one of them.

Van Manning was district manager of the Bureau of Land Management's Salem District from 1987 to 2000, is a former planning consultant for the Association of O&C Counties and represented the O&C counties as a cooperator with BLM in developing the Western Oregon Plan Revisions. He lives on Fox Island, Wash.

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