U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio conceded to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden Thursday morning regarding their respective O&C forest management plans, to the dismay of the supporters of DeFazio’s plan and Oregon county commissioners who were holding out hopes it would make it through the Senate this year.
Wyden’s bill calls for forest management plans that would allow for twice as much cutting in the forests — 300 million board feet (mbf) — as is done now, and limit the environmental review process for logging in some designated harvest areas while guaranteeing protection for stands of trees more than 120 years old.
DeFazio’s plan put about half of the 2.1 million acres of federally owned forest lands into a trust for protection and would manage the rest for forest health, timber harvests to help local economies and fire mitigation. His bill received positive accolades compared to the tepid reception Wyden’s bill garnered from most organizations and elected officials throughout the state.
“You and I, together with the governor and members of the Oregon Delegation, have agreed to principles,” DeFazio said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.
During the hearing, which Wyden oversaw as his last day as chair before he moves to the Senate Budget Committee, DeFazio said, “On the House side, Congressman Walden, Congressman Schrader, and I took our best shot at a balanced plan (based on those principles).”
That plan passed the House last year, but Wyden told DeFazio the concept of putting lands in a trust would not pass the Senate and would likely face opposition from the Obama administration.
“It’s no secret the trust concept has been subject to, shall we say, ‘intense,’ scrutiny,” DeFazio said. “While I still think there are benefits to a trust concept, I acknowledge the current political reality and believe our agreed-upon principles can be legislated through a different construct — such as the construct proposed in your O&C bill.”
Some offering testimony at the committee hearing this week expressed their dismay at Wyden’s plan as they did when it was first presented.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said the process seemed to be politically, and not scientifically, driven.
“It’s just like the Keystone XL pipeline,” he said. “Forest management is being dictated by the administration.”
Wyden said the administration opposes his bill because its sets his 7.5 million acres of forest land to be managed in statute.
“The 7.5 million acres represents 3.8 percent of National Forest lands,” he said. “Thirty-six million acres are set aside as wilderness — 19 percent. Another 60 million is roadless — 31 percent. It’s like wilderness and roadless are de facto uses, not timber.”
Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said that while he agrees with the goals of Wyden’s plan, he cannot support it as written because he isn’t sure it won’t add more to the existing process of allocating sales, erode public trust further nor not require transferring funds from wildfire coffers.
He echoed the idea that would be evident throughout the morning meeting of finding a balance between the pendulum swings of extremism: protectionism to clearcutting.
“Whenever I look at the national forest for one purpose, my experience shows there is more controversy and concern about our management,” Tidwell said. “When you look at the larger landscape and look at all the elements, that’s where you have tremendous success and can build support and get work done.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that “view of the larger landscape is great, but it never seems like it includes timber harvests. Timber harvests have to be given a greater priority.”
The Association of Oregon Counties in December said they were disappointed in Wyden’s plan, saying it doesn’t include “three bedrock principles” for which they’d agreed upon, said Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson. They include a reduction in lawsuits over timber sales, a steady output of timber and a reasonable level of funding for local governments.
DeFazio said he believes Wyden’s bill can modified to achieve the principles.
“In order to provide adequate revenues and timber supply, the land base will need to be expanded,” he said. “The harvests need to be geographically dispersed … so we don’t neglect the management needs of our forests in Southwest Oregon. We need certainty that the projects authorized in the bill will occur.”
DeFazio cited explosive wildfire and local economies among the reasons to include more of the components of his plan in Wyden’s proposal. He noted the copious number of board feet cut in the 1908s — 1.53 billion — that led to listing the spotted owl as an endangered species represented one extreme swing of the pendulum, and the current status of forest management and the resultant effects on the local economies representing the other extreme.
“It has left rural counties — whose budgets are statutorily linked to these lands — on the cusp of insolvency,” he said. “In some counties, there is little or no rural law enforcement at all. The status quo — bankrupt counties, 15 to 20 percent real unemployment, one out of every four people on food stamps, a fifth of the population living below the poverty line, unhealthy forests — isn’t what Oregonians want either.
“It’s time to move away from the extremes, to find and legislate a reasonable and balanced solution,” he added. “Chairman Wyden, I know we can do that.”
“The conversation has been monopolized by ideological extremes, Wyden said, noting that nothing gets done when “some group parachutes out of nowhere and throws up roadblocks. Neither extremes are winners for our state. And we cannot be kept waiting while lawyers fritter away time and money. Forest management has been stalled so long, it’s virtually fossilized.”
DeFazio also wants more environmental protections, notably water quality, included in any legislation.
“A huge priority for me is a more coherent policy for protecting our rivers, streams and aquatic features,” DeFazio said. “In the House bill, I was able to secure language to dedicate 5 percent of net revenues to protecting rivers and streams on neighboring private lands. The concept is to purchase easements from willing landowners to create contiguous riparian buffers on private and federal lands. We will need to identify a revenue stream in your bill for this important aquatic initiative.”
Others brought up the severe drought, costs of fighting wildfires and the fact that major conflagrations are striking the West — in February — as reasons to expedite legislation.
Mike Matz, director of U.S. Public Lands for The Pew Charitable Trust, agreed that balance is key, but said more attention needs to be paid to national environmental protection statutes and there needs to be more wilderness protection, notably near Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, around the Umpqua River and Mt. Hebo on the border of Tillamook and Yamhill counties.
Robertson suggested the federal agencies get to the business of management.
“The Bureau of Land Management does not manage land,” he said. “It deals with paper, process and litigation that is of no benefit to the government, its counties or citizens. It simply must change.”
DeFazio also suggested more environmental activism — and not in the courts — needs to be involved in the upcoming legislative process.
“Demonstration projects, which form the management prescriptions included in Chairman Wyden’s bill, were challenged, litigated and appealed — further underscoring the need for a legislative solution,” DeFazio said. “Endlessly challenging and litigating modest scientific demonstration projects, sponsoring misleading and downright false billboards and advertisements back home to scare the general public, and flat-out refusing invitations to join diverse stakeholders to build a balanced Oregon plan for a uniquely Oregon problem — those things won’t work.”
Sean Stevens, director of Oregon Wild, said his organization still opposes the legislation, saying it dramatically weakens the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Northwest Forest Plan.
“In the past, it was as if logging was the only mission, he said. “Then there was an outcry for protection. Logging is no longer the driver of the Oregon economy. And it makes no sense to fund local governments — governments with the lowest tax bases in the state — with logging revenue. The public lands belong to all Americans.”
Dale Riddle, the senior vice president of legal affairs for Seneca Sawmill in Eugene, noted that those counties are suffering severe public safety challenges without those funds.