Wyden's timber goals easier said than done

Sen. Ron Wyden is on the right track with his new proposal to reinvent timber harvest policy on public forest lands in Oregon. We wish him luck; he's going to need it.

Wyden's bill, which he hopes to introduce this year, would end the logging of old-growth trees on federal land anywhere in the state. At the same time, the bill would greatly accelerate thinning and other forest restoration work, including harvesting younger trees.

Norm Johnson, a forestry professor at Oregon State University who worked on the Northwest Forest Plan, has estimated that Wyden's proposal could double the timber harvest on federal lands.

Oregon's federal forests have fallen far short of even the scaled-back harvest levels prescribed in the Northwest Forest Plan, adopted under President Bill Clinton in 1994. That plan included old-growth trees within areas designated for logging.

Environmental groups sued to block those timber sales, bringing timber harvest to a virtual standstill. The harvest levels set out in the Northwest Forest Plan have never been achieved.

That led to the loss of jobs in the woods and in sawmills, and a corresponding loss in payments to heavily timbered counties such as this one, putting a crimp in county budgets that in turn led to cuts in public services.

Wyden now proposes to take old-growth timber out of the equation entirely, in hopes of generating broad-based support to increase logging of younger trees. The bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to shift their emphasis to reducing fire and insect risk to forests. It would eliminate administrative appeals of management projects conducted under the new guidelines and exempt restoration projects of up to 25,000 acres from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Here's where Wyden will need a combination of luck and hard work to convince environmental groups to get behind his vision.

The Nature Conservancy — a moderate conservation group — has praised the plan. So have the American Lands Alliance, Conservation Northwest and Oregon Wild (formerly the Oregon Natural Resources Council) — sort of.

"This proposal is a step in the right direction, but falls short in some areas," Oregon Wild's executive director said in a statement. "We very much look forward to working with the senator to strengthen his proposal to ensure that mature and old-growth forests ... are truly protected and restored across the landscape."

The carefully chosen language — "strengthen" the proposal, and "mature and old-growth forests." suggest ever so subtly that these groups won't settle for a mere ban on old-growth logging.

Nor is the removal of administrative appeals and the exemption from NEPA review likely to sit well with environmentalists.

At the same time, Wyden must convince timber industry members that this plan is in their best interest. Timber interests are understandably skeptical after years of seeing Northwest Forest Plan harvest "guarantees" go unmet.

Both sides in the seemingly endless battle over forest policy will have to bend a little if this plan has any hope of passing.

But if they can see their way to the clearing through the underbrush, they just might meet in the middle and find common ground at last.

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