Oregon environmental groups may push for increased logging restrictions in state and private forests if a federal bill aimed at boosting harvests on the Oregon and California Railroad lands passes Congress.
“We’re definitely looking at it. Oregon has the weakest forest practices on the West Coast,” said Oregon Wild Executive Director Sean Stevens. “If we start logging federal forests, you might see a shifting priority for private lands, and some of these private forest owners might not like that but they have sort of been given a free pass.”
A bill written by Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden that would put about 1.6 million of Oregon’s 2.4 million acres of O&C land into a trust managed by the state for timber production could come to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote as early as next week. The bill also sets aside 90,000 new acres as protected wilderness areas and permanently bans the logging of old-growth forests.
Loggers cut about 6.3 billion board feet from state and private lands each year in Oregon, and this bill would add about 500 million new feet each year, which would be an increase of about 6 to 8 percent depending on the year.
“Ten years ago, these environmental groups would have said this is an unbelievable victory,” DeFazio said. “It’s a heck of a conservation package … It’s hardly the devastation and clear cutting plan that environmental groups are trying to push.”
Under DeFazio’s bill, loggers would be placed on a 100- to 120- year rotation — more than double the time allowed between rotational clear cutting on state and private lands under the Oregon Forest Practices Act. The congressman also said that logs cut from federal lands would have to be milled in the United States, whereas those cut on state or private lands often are shipped to Asia for processing.
Western Oregon counties have been struggling economically for two decades since the spotted owl restrictions ended almost all logging on federal forest lands. Several have made headlines in recent months for cutting basic law enforcement services and for struggling to keep their younger generation in the area.
“A failure to pass legislation, in my view, is unacceptable,” Sen. Ron Wyden said during an editorial board meeting with the Statesman Journal in August. “If a bill doesn’t pass, things get worse. I’m not waiting for that catastrophe.”
Wyden and DeFazio differ on one key element of the House bill: The creation of a state trust and state board appointed by Oregon’s governor to oversee the management of O&C lands.
Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, thinks the trust would be viewed as privatization of public lands — making the House bill dead on arrival in the Senate.
“Who cares if the forests stay federal in name if the management is going to be handled like private land,” Oregon Wild’s Stevens said. “That’s like saying you own your home but you can’t live it in, you can’t invite friends over, you can’t have a barbeque in the backyard, but you still own it.”
Wyden plans to author his own O&C bill for the Senate that would leave control of the forests in federal hands and create a transition fund to help the beleaguered timber counties pay their bills while the new logging regulations are set up by selling the nation’s helium reserves. The House bill has no transition fund.
“The key thing here is predictability, certainty and permanence,” DeFazio said. “If there is another way to get the certainty without a trust, I’d be happy to work with (Wyden) on that.”
Stevens wants Oregon’s delegation to focus on building the future economy of Oregon, which he thinks centers around outdoor recreation and tourism.
“The two are a little bit mutually exclusive because people don’t go hiking in clear cuts and they don’t go rafting and fishing in muddy streams, “ Stevens said.
He also pointed out that farmers whose properties are adjacent to federal forest lands are worried about the impacts of pesticides and other chemicals used during the logging process.
“The ads they’re running to attack my plan are really against Oregon forest practices where 80 percent of our timber is harvested,” DeFazio said.
Increased logging on O&C lands enjoys broad public support from state legislators as well as Gov. John Kitzhaber, who spokesman Tim Raphael said “is encouraged that the Oregon delegation is moving aggressively on legislation that would provide an appropriate balance between sustainable timber harvest and environmental protection on O&C lands.”