WASHINGTON – A forestry bill approved by the GOP-majority House on Friday likely won’t advance in Congress, but it will keep logging and federal payments to rural Oregon counties on the legislative agenda.
The House bill would increase logging in federal forests, continue payments to cash-strapped rural counties and adopt a new policy for 18 western Oregon counties that have land that once belonged to the Oregon and California Railroad.
The Democratic-majority Senate is unlikely to take it up. The White House has threatened to veto the measure, saying it would destroy wilderness, roll back environmental protections and weaken the federal government’s ability to manage lands it owns.
The vote was 244-173, mostly along party lines, although one Republican voted no and 17 Democrats voted yes. Oregon’s Democratic delegation was split on the bill, with Reps. Peter DeFazio of Springfield and Kurt Schrader of Canby voting yes and Earl Blumenauer of Portland and Suzanne Bonamici of Washington County voting no.
DeFazio and Schrader wrote the bill’s section on O&C lands along with the lone Oregon Republican in Congress, Rep. Greg Walden of Hood River, who voted yes.
The DeFazio-Schrader-Walden plan for the 2.8-million-acre O&C lands was aimed at preserving pristine forests and allowing some logging in younger forests to help the impoverished counties.
One million acres would be transferred from the Bureau of Land Management to the U.S. Forest Service to be conserved permanently, 90,000 acres would be afforded new wilderness protections and 130 miles of rivers would be designated as wild and scenic.
Logging would be increased to “sustainable” levels in the remaining acreage, which would remain under BLM’s control but would be managed by a trust run by Oregonians. Logging would produce 400-500 million board feet of lumber a year, less than one-third the harvest levels in the past, DeFazio said.
Still, rural Oregon counties would earn nearly $1 billion over 10 years due to increased logging, creating jobs and reviving the timber industry in the process, and providing a steady stream of payments under the federal Secure Rural Schools program for struggling rural counties, DeFazio said.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the forestry bill calls for a one-time federal payment of $375 million in fiscal 2014 for all forested counties in the U.S. and additional payments of $430 million spread out over fiscal years 2015 through 2023. A bulk of that money is expected to go to Oregon. The O&C counties would also receive approximately $54 million from fiscal 2015-2017.
DeFazio, ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he voted yes even though he opposed much of the rest of the bill, written by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
“I’m happy today that we were able to move it out of the House and send it to the Senate,” DeFazio said after the vote. “House action is critical in order to get action in the Senate. … This is an absolutely crucial first step.”
House approval is a necessary step in the legislative process — it gives House negotiators a proposal to work with when crafting compromise legislation with their Senate counterparts.
Schrader said the Senate has been reluctant to propose a long-term solution for the impoverished O&C counties unless it has support in the House. Friday’s passage in the House clears the way for the Senate to act next, he said.
“One thing that the vote proved is that there are more Democrats besides Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio from Oregon who have very strong interest in the O&C piece,” Schrader said in an interview. “This sends — hopefully — a message to rural America, particularly to rural Oregon, that you matter.”
The House vote marks a “bright spot” in a Congress barely able to legislate due to deep partisan differences, Walden said.
“It means jobs for our communities. It means a stronger economy. It means healthier forests and a revenue stream for our schools and our roads and our law enforcement,” he said.
Any forestry bill that comes out of the Senate will substantially differ from the House measure, which was bitterly opposed by environmentalists.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of that chamber’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working on an O&C lands plan that he could unveil in the next two weeks. A broader forestry bill may also be in the works along the lines of an alternative proposed by Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.
The House bill would pay for Secure Rural School, or SRS, in fiscal 2014.
A measure the Senate approved Thursday to prevent a helium shortage contains a Wyden provision to extend SRS through this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The program expired last year and hasn’t received funding, and if the helium bill becomes law 33 Oregon counties would share about $100 million, Wyden said.
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