When it comes federal forest policy in western Oregon, there isn't much environmental groups, county commissioners and the timber industry agree on. But today representatives of all three groups agreed on one thing: Their meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the future of Oregon & California Railroad forestland was promising. And worth doing again.
Salazar met with representatives of environmental groups, the timber industry, county commissioners, U.S. Rep. Peter Defazio and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley in Roseburg today to air out decades-old disagreements over how much timber should be harvested on 2.2 million acres of federal forestland in western Oregon.
Salazar said he is determined to find common ground, and wants all parties agree on a 20-year plan for managing the land, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The plan would aim to support the timber industry by allowing logging that wouldn't harm forest ecology, he said.
The first step involves testing a method of eco-friendly yet economically substantial forest thinning on two pilot sites spanning 20,000 to 30,000 acres. Salazar called for today's discussion group to reconvene "as soon as possible" – likely before the end of the year – to select areas for the pilot sites.
"Let's have another meeting just like this," Salazar said, as the roundtable was wrapping up Monday. "I want to get beyond the paralysis of the past and the paralysis of the present. We need a new way forward, and I think today's meeting offers a framework for additional discussion."
The pilot projects stem from the research of Oregon State University forestry professors Norman Johnson and Jerry Franklin, who have proposed a way to manage forests in southwest Oregon without clear-cutting or logging old-growth stands.
Monday's meeting was peppered with some of the same old disagreements over environmental roadblocks to logging, and it brought up some divisive ideas such as transferring the BLM lands to the U.S. Forest Service or selling some federal land to the timber industry.
But Salazar pushed forward, nevertheless.
"Don't go to disagreements," he insisted. "Go to agreements."
The lands in question have been increasingly closed to logging since 1990 to protect the Northern spotted owl, and lawsuits from environmental groups have blocked many proposed timber sales. Western Oregon counties that once relied on timber revenues to maintain public services have been receiving federal safety net payments to make up for the lost income, but the subsidies expire in June of 2012.
Steve Swanson, president and CEO of the Swanson Group, was one timber industry representative at the roundtable. He said there are "billions of board-feet" of timber on federal lands that should be harvestable but have been blocked by lawsuits from environmental groups. He said he's glad to see Salazar getting involved in finding a solution, but that keeping the timber industry afloat will require opening up a lot more acreage than the pilot sites will provide.
Andy Kerr of Oregon Wild was a roundtable representative from the environmental community. He said Salazar's proposal is "a great half a plan" but too small to solve BLM forest problems before the safety net payments run out. He advocated for transferring some of the O&C lands to the U.S. Forest Service to make management easier and said the timber industry is asking for too much and shouldn't be allowed to harvest old-growth trees.
Sen. Merkley said he expects the pilot management sites to be set within the next two or three months, and although the concept isn't new, "this kind of recognition from the secretary of the interior is a huge step forward."