U.S. Rep. Greg Walden used this summer’s wildfires in Oregon and California as a launching pad in a speech he gave urging federal legislators to support House Resolution 1526.
HR 1526, crafted by Rep. Peter DeFazio and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, is another attempt at legislation to get workers back into the woods to harvest timber. Historically, a portion of revenue generated from timber cuts on federal land has gone to local schools, roads and other services, but harvesting was curtailed in the courts in the early 1980s by lawsuits filed by environmentalists.
“What does that mean for counties that have 60, 70 percent of federal timber lands?” Walden posited to U.S. House representatives Wednesday. “You don’t have a tax base. And now you don’t have jobs.”
The resolution, which passed in the House Natural Resources Committee late last month, is among numerous issues the House will hear in the session that reconvened Sept. 9.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the resolution is a “priority” in the next several weeks.
Wildfires this summer have burned almost 4 million acres throughout the West, much of it through thick wooded areas featuring trees that haven’t been thinned in 30 years.
“If there isn’t a more destructive clearcut than that, I don’t know what it is,” Walden said. “And after it burns, there are no requirements they go in and replant. This is what you get when you don’t manage. A lack of action has an impact in a dynamic forest environment.
“It’s not (just) what’s happening in Southern Oregon,” Walden added. “But, the smoke was so thick, they had to cancel Shakespeare performances outside. Restaurants were shut down. People were wearing masks. There was smoke inside businesses. This is not what we want out of our forests.”
County Commissioner Susan Brown liked the tack Walden took by bringing this summer’s devastating wildfires into the discussion. Collectively, fires have burned more than 4 million acres of land in the West.
“I like the way he put it, that management has gotten us a lot of fires,” she said. “These fires are devastating without management. They’re destroying what we could be logging, but they’re destroying more — the underbrush that is starting more fires. We can have green forests and responsible logging. It was one of the better explanations I’ve heard.”
Commissioner David Brock Smith agreed.
“That was an amazingly powerful speech,” he said, moments after viewing the video. “The images of the fires — the sheer numbers alone. So much of the state of Oregon is owned by the federal government and we’re only using 12 percent of that timber.
“We’re sitting on a catastrophic fire (potential) here in Curry County that would make the Biscuit Fire look like a campfire. We’re 10 years later; it could burn to the ocean. And we’re spending millions of dollars to fight fires rather than getting millions through forest management. Every point was right on.”
HR 1526 would, in addition to allowing timber harvests on federal land while protecting about half of them for environmental reasons, provide half of Oregon’s counties with much-needed revenue to fund public services and provide jobs.
Commissioner David Itzen liked what Walden said about working together.
“I liked the fact he referred to (President) Roosevelt,” Itzen said. “Roosevelt was instrumental in setting it all up (setting aside Forest Service lands); he understood the forests were there for the benefit of people — to use them. He (Walden) also realizes the importance of partnership with communities in and around forests: wood, water and jobs.”
Walden said nine of the 20 counties he represents have double-digit unemployment and 14 percent of their residents are at poverty levels. He cited the closure of Cave Junction’s Rough and Ready mill this summer, which had been in operation for almost 100 years — and that resulted in the layoff of 87 employees.
“I have sheriff’s departments in counties in my district with one deputy,” Walden said. “They have situations of violence, 911 calls — a woman was being attacked and told, basically, ‘We have no one to send; can you tell him to go away?’ You can’t make this stuff up.”
Such shortages in public safety are due, in part, to the 90 percent decrease in timber harvests in the state, Walden said.
“There is a way to end this,” he said of the counties’ challenges. “And produce jobs and revenue and have healthy forests, rather than what we have today. This is a bridge to put people back to work in the woods. This is a balance.”
The timber counties, of which Curry County is one, have in recent years depended on emergency appropriations of federal funds to get by after timber revenue ended. Voters in most of those counties have repeatedly rejected ballot measures that would increase taxes to make up for that loss, including one here that lost in May, 56-44 percent.
Voters here now face a question on the Nov. 5 ballot asking for a property tax rate increase of $1.35 per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund public safety services.
If it fails, there are few backup plans, elected officials have noted.
“We aren’t saying, ‘Give us another handout; give us another check,’” Walden told House members. “We’re saying let us manage our forests and do it under the Oregon State Forest Practice Act. And we will create jobs and revenue for our schools.”
“It’s the start of something,” Brown said. “It’s a good step to get us going.”
“I hope it passes as is, but I know the reality is there will be some changes,” Itzen said. “I hope it reaches Sen. Wyden’s desk widely intact. And then we’ll see what happens.”