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Wyden Plan Would Harvest Some O&C Forest Lands, Conserve Others

Senator Ron Wyden has revealed more of what he has in mind for Southern Oregon’s timber-dependent counties.

O&C Forest Lands sign

O&C Forest Lands sign

April Baer/OPB

Oregon House members like Peter Defazio and Greg Walden have been working on a long-term management plan. Now Wyden has stepped forward with a similar proposal.

Wyden’s voice in the matter is important because of his increasing stature. He recently rose to chairmanship of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

Wyden says he’s building on work done by his House colleagues, and by Governor John Kitzhaber’s O&C Task Force.

“We have all agreed on the key kinds of principles. We need more jobs for rural communities, we’ve got the get the harvest up, and we’ve got to do it in a way that’s sensitive to our environmental treasures.”

The Wyden framework picks up on one key idea the House members put forward: dividing federal O&C forest lands into two groups - land to be conserved, and land to be managed for timber harvests.

It does not spell out how much cash would be raised. It does suggest that timber lands should be managed, not under state forest practices, but under stricter federal rules.

Wyden says one difference is that his plan would keep federal rules in place over O&C harvests.

“They would not be managed under, in effect, state law, this was a key question. I think Oregonians remember what happened with that salvage rider debate, which triggered an enormous fight.”

In the mid 90’s a Clinton administration decision to exempt fire salvage timber sales from federal rules drew lawsuits that brought timber harvests to a halt.

Environmental groups reacted favorably.

Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild was pleased to see permanent protections for old growth forests.

“Senator Wyden has waded into this fight in an effort to broker a truce. Not everyone can win, at least everyone can feel good about the outcome. That’s a change from where we’ve been.”

Pedery’s still waiting to see how the land would be divided, but says Wyden has acted as a fair broker in the past.

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson notes Wyden’s framework lacks a key element present in the House members’ bill: a land trust that would manage half the forest land for sustainable harvests.

Robertson said O&C counties hoped a trust, operating with waivers for environmental laws, could deliver higher timber yields, and more certainty to counties dealing with dire fiscal problems. He’s not sure Wyden’s approach will provide that certainty.

Wyden’s framework makes it clear the formulas guiding forest management will assume a local tax level that may be higher than what counties assess at present. Some of the O&C Counties assess far lower local taxes than other parts of the state.

Robertson notes many voters in O&C counties are deeply resistant to higher taxes. Levies failed Tuesday night in two of the most financially-strapped southern counties.

“That issue isn’t going to go away. it’s going to have to be dealt with.” Wyden says there’s plenty of room for flexibility on how counties approach raising revenue.

“Here’s the bottom line: It’s a tight budget, everybody understands that. Our communities are saying they’re going to step up, because they understand the government will be most sympathetic to those who help themselves.”

Wyden says, with additional staff on the job in his office and elsewhere in delegation, the bill can be finished and passed in a matter of months.