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House Subcommittee Considers Forest Management

Thursday morning the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands is scheduled to discuss how some federal forests are managed. The discussion holds great interest for Oregon and Washington counties who’ve historically relied on timber income.

The subcommittee is taking up a proposal that would set up public trusts to manage parcels of land within the National Forest system. It was written by the subcommittee chair, Doc Hastings of Washington. The purpose of the trusts would be to raise money for timber-dependent counties.

Oregon’s Peter DeFazio is also a member of the subcommittee. He says the bill is so vague, it’s hard to tell what effect it might have.

“There are no percentages in terms of revenues. Even if this were to become law - which I doubt it will - where the forest service would get the resources to carry out the project,” DeFazio said.

But what’s getting a lot of attention is the big blank space at the end of the bill. It was left intentionally blank to allow for new regulation of some different federal forests in Oregon. The Bureau of Land Management administers  2.4 million acres of federal forests in the state, in the so-called O&C Counties. 

In the past, federal timber payments provided a safety net for rural counties, hit hard by the decline of the timber industry. Because the land is public, the government doesn’t pay property tax on it. Congress made up for that by sharing timber revenues with local governments. 

Now, those payments are coming to an end. Defazio notes the last payments will come September 30th. So the counties, he says, need a long-term plan to maintain vital services.

“We can’t have a large swath of the state as an area that is totally un-policed, no road maintenance, county health depts. That’s the reality here for total loss of revenues,” DeFazio said.

Defazio has been working on an idea for a revenue stream: twin trusts to manage two kinds of Western Oregon forests. He’s expanding on a concept proposed by Andy Stahl, director of the non-profit environmental group, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

“We have a situation where about 1/2 of the forests were clearcut logged in last 50 yrs, about half of the forests remain as remains native, natural, old growth, and irreplaceable. I put forward was a simple idea, that we designate each of those two halves as trusts,” Stahl said.

Stahl suggests one trust could manage second-growth forests to produce cash for O&C Counties. The second trust, he says, might manage the old-growth forests for conservation, with minimal timber cutting for the health of the forests.

The concepts of trusts is not new. Both Oregon and Washington state manage some state forestlands this way. Those forests are still subject to all major federal environmental rules. But advocates for increased harvests say it’s critical for the O&C forest land to come out from under federal authority, if the trust plan is going to work.

Chuck Hurliman is a Tillamook County Commissioner, and member of the Association of O&C Counties. He’s also worked for both the BLM and the Forest Service.

“History will tell us that management under the forest system has not been working. It should be able to work. But it gives us a gloomy outlook on the feds ever being able to achieve a management scheme that doesn’t end up in court,” according to Hurliman.

Oregon Congressman Greg Walden will likely play an important role for any forest trust agreement. Although he’s not on the subcommittee, he is a member of the House Republican leadership. He could not be reached for comment.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is pursuing a temporary extension of O&C timber payments while DeFazio and other members of the delegation try to get a plan for trusts hammered out.

The balance between responsible forestry and environmental stewardship has been a polarizing battle for decades. Stakeholders say it will take buy-in on all sides to come up with a workable solution in time for the O&C counties.

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