The U.S. House has passed legislation that would increase timber production both on National Forests and the former railroad properties in Western Oregon known as the O&C lands. Reporter David Nogueras has been following this story. He joined OPB All Things Considered Host Beth Hyams to discuss the situation.
David Nogueras: Hi Beth.
Beth Hyams: So tell us a little bit about this bill - what exactly does it do?
DN: Well the bill is called the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. It’s a federal forest management bill, and it makes a lot of changes to the way the government manages it forests. But the big change is how it increases timber production on national forest lands.
BH: What kind of increase are we talking about?
DN: Well, the Congressional Budget Office released a cost estimate of the bill earlier this week, and according to that estimate the Forest Service would be required to offer roughly 6 billion board feet of timber for sale each year. Just for comparison, over the last five years the agency has sold off an average of 2.5 billion board feet annually - so more than double.
BH: Wow - that’s a lot of timber.
DN: It is and it would also mean a lot of money. CBO estimates that, under the bill, timber receipts would increase by a little over $2 billion over an eight-year period. And, while there is a component of maintaining forest health and preventing wildfires, the money is a big part of this, because rural counties traditionally have gotten a cut of those receipts. And many of those counties are pretty hard up right now.
BH: We mentioned earlier the bill has an Oregon component. Tell us about that?
DN: Yes, well for the last two years Oregon representatives Peter Defazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden have been working on a solution to what are known as the O&C lands. These are federal lands that in one point in time were owned by the Oregon and California Railroad Company, which is where the name comes from. Again, the big issue here is funding for rural counties to keep vital services going. So the plan the plan they came up with involves taking those 2.4 million acres - which are kind of in a checkerboard pattern - and splitting them up. About a million acres would be set aside for protection. And the rest of that would be managed by a state board for timber production.
BH: Now, more than a dozen Democrats voted for the bill today (Friday). That includes Defazio and Schrader. But other than that, the vote was mostly along party lines. How likely is it that this bill will pass the Senate where the Democrats are in control?
DN: According to pretty much everybody I spoke with today, not very. That includes Peter Defazio, who was the primary author of the O&C component of the bill. In fact, in a conference today, DeFazio said he didn’t support many of the proposals in the bill, even though he voted for it. Also this week, the White House Office of Management and Budget indicated that President Obama could veto the bill should it reach his desk. In a memo they said the bill would “undermine many important existing public land and environmental laws, rules, and processes.” And that’s likely to be a concern in the Senate as well.
BH: So what comes next?
DN: Well, yesterday Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden managed to attach a proposal to extend timber payments made through the Secure Rural Schools program. I should say that the House bill we’ve been talking about also extends timber payments to bridge the gap while a solution gets worked out. The Senate could pass it’s own version of the House bill.
On the house floor yesterday, Defazio sounded hopeful about the prospects of a compromise. Defazio said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings of Washington has indicated that he’s willing to go to conference with any relevant bill passed by the Senate.
In the meantime, Senator Wyden is expected to unveil his own legislation dealing specifically with the O&C. And that could come sometime next month.
BH: David, thank you.
DN: Thank you, Beth.