Congress must revise its policies towards millions of acres of federally owned forests in Western Oregon to produce revenues from timber harvests, or several counties may go bankrupt, federal and local officials told members of the House Natural Resources Committee Thursday.
"Doing nothing is not an option. It is time for action. It is time to stop talking about principles and concepts, and start moving forward with specific legislative ideas," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, as he introduced a proposal that would open about 1.4 million acres of federal forests in Western Oregon to logging while permanently protecting about 1.3 million acres of old growth forest. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, are co-sponsors of the proposal.
The land in question is 2.7 million acres across Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Tillamook, Washington and Yamhill counties.
The land was originally granted to the Oregon and California Railroad Co. to develop an interstate railroad.
After that effort failed, the land was taken back by the government and is now overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. In exchange, the government agreed to pay 50 percent of OandC timber proceeds to local governments.
Walden, who along with DeFazio and Schrader addressed the committee in support of the proposal, said he was encouraged that the legislative process was underway, although it will take time and effort to get the bill approved by the Natural Resources Committee, the full House, and the Senate.
"I'm more hopeful than I've ever been that we can pass comprehensive forest management reform, and especially of the OandC legislation. It's bipartisan at a time in Congress where there isn't a lot of that," he said.
The OandC proposal was one of five pieces of proposed legislation discussed by the Committee Thursday, most of which are designed to compel the U.S. Forest Service to conduct more active management of National Forests, both to produce revenues and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. One proposal by Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would require the Forest Service to establish an annual requirement for each "forest reserve revenue area" and require a harvest at least half of the sustainable yield.
The fact that the OandC lands are legally distinct from other federal forests may work in their favor, said Walden.
"These are lands that were dedicated for jobs and harvest and proper management, stewardship, of course, but were always uniquely carved out for that," he said. "I think there's a common understanding in the country that we need jobs and we don't need more forest fires, and we can (accomplish) both with this legislation."
In 2000, Congress enacted Secure Rural Schools legislation, which provided timber-heavy counties with direct payments intended to compensate them for the havoc wreaked on local economies and tax bases by restrictions on logging on federal land. The payments, designed to grow smaller over time as rural economies transitioned away from logging, have been extended several times, including a one-year extension passed last year.
In 2012, Oregon received almost $100 million in timber payments, including $36 million from the Bureau of Land Management for the 18 OandC counties.
Renewing timber payments becomes more and more difficult every year, Walden said.