WASHINGTON - The House Natural Resources Committee approved a forestry bill Wednesday that includes a bipartisan plan to open more than 1.4 million acres of federally owned forests in Western Oregon to revenue-producing harvests.
The plan, developed by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, would place about 1.3 million acres of old growth forests in the Oregon and California Railroad Grant lands - known as the OandC lands - under permanent protections. The remaining 1.4 million acres would be placed in a trust and managed to produce maximum revenues for the 18 Oregon counties that contain OandC lands.
"It's a very big step. The next step is the floor of the House," DeFazio said after the four-hour markup, which culminated in the by a voice vote. "We've been working toward this moment for a very long time."
DeFazio, who was recently named the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday that Walden was "quite comfortable this will reach the floor early this fall. I believe we will be able to work out any differences and get some legislation in place."
DeFazio's new seniority guarantees he will be a member of the conference committee tasked with reconciling different versions of the bill, should the Senate pass its own legislation.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has been working on his own bill, which he hopes will increase the amount of logging on federal lands without gutting environmental protections.
Walden, a House Republican leader, said he spoke to every Republican member of the House Natural Resources Committee to make sure they appreciated what was at stake for Oregon counties.
"If it was just moving the OandC bill in the House it would be more problematic," DeFazio said by phone. "There are a lot of questions among the Westerners: 'If Oregon gets to manage these lands, why can't we manage these?' These are unique statutory charges. State-specific is a unique issue.
"There are some people nattering, 'This is an earmark,'" he added. "If they knock us out of the bill, I won't vote for it."
A major issue for many Oregon counties is that drastically reduced revenue from the OandC lands, which are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, has several counties teetering on the edge of insolvency.
"This is a really important day for Oregon's forests and American forests and our communities," Walden said. "For the OandC counties, it's a huge win in a desperate time."
With Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., as the Natural Resource Committee chairman, members from the Pacific Northwest occupy two top slots, which is very valuable in passing forestry legislation, he said.
"It's big bipartisan progress at a time when Congress doesn't see a lot of that," he said. "We need to get it on the president's desk, and we need to do it this year," before next year's midterm elections draw attention from the bill.
During the hearing, Hastings expressed some concerns about the OandC plan. He said he fears that extra protections afforded riparian areas and old-growth stands could set a precedent on other federal forests, but DeFazio assured him those provisions were exclusive to OandC lands.
DeFazio said in a telephone conference that the U.S. Forest Service had available tools to start making the forests safer against wildfire, but failed to use them.
"That would have saved the federal government one whole heck of a lot of money," he said.
Hastings sponsored the main body of the bill, titled Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act. Under Hastings' legislation, federal forests would be required to harvest enough timber to replace revenues currently supplied by the Secure Rural Schools program. While this concept has widespread support among Republicans, many House Democrats believe the amount of logging required to offset the payments is not compatible with environmental standards.
Enacted in 2000, the Secure Rural Schools program provides 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.
Hastings' bill would extend Secure Rural Schools funding for an additional year at 2010 levels to give rural counties a bridge until additional revenues begin coming in.
Otherwise, communities will continue to watch resources burn in devastating wildfires because the federal government has allowed them to become unhealthy and laden with dangerous amounts of hazardous fuel, he said.
Last year, 9.3 million acres of national forest land burned in wildfires, 44 times greater than the roughly 200,000 acres harvested by the U.S. Forest Service, he said. Even as DeFazio spoke, tens of thousands of acres of public lands in southwestern Oregon were on fire and have been designated the top firefighting priority in the nation.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said by mandating logging levels on all federal forests, the overall bill creates more problems than solutions.
"Waiving (the National Environmental Policy Act) and gutting the Endangered Species Act will not help prevent forest fires or increase forest health," he said.
DeFazio said the days of the massive clearcuts are over, and that small parcels would be targeted on 120-year cycles.
"It's not going to look like the industrial lands that the environmental groups have portrayed," he said. "This is not the heyday era of the 1980s."
DeFazio and Walden said they both understand that the bill will undergo additional changes as it works its way through the legislative process.
"We adopted new standards into the bill," DeFazio said. "One involves enhanced riparian protection on private land downstream of BLM lands. We also added two tribal land settlements."
Additionally, more cuts will not be permitted during times when wood prices are high, and even though harvests would be limited to 1.2 billion board feet, it would significantly benefit Oregon counties, which he said suffer from "a real" unemployment rate of 20 percent. And if citizens want more money for county services, he added, they can opt to tax themselves - another issue that many OandC counties failed to do, leading them to the financial predicaments in which they now stand.
Now that the bill has made it out of committee, it will be voted on by the full House. Walden said House leadership had assured him it would receive a vote in September after Congress returns from its August recess.
DeFazio said Wednesday that there are small differences among legislators, but many areas that overlap.
"We're looking at the principal objective, and we're around the same place," he said. "The question is how to get there. I'm open to discussion."
While he and Walden were buoyed by the results of Wednesday's hearing, the Portland-based conservation group Oregon Wild quickly condemned the committee actions.
"Oregonians should be outraged that the first thing Rep. DeFazio has done as ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee is to partner with one of the most anti-environmental legislators in Congress on a bill that represents the worst threat to the nation's public lands in a generation," said Sean Stevens, the organization's executive director, in a prepared statement.
Most vocal throughout the bill's progress has been Oregon Wild.
"Vast increases in clear-cut logging are simply not compatible with the future of Oregon's economy and way of life," Stevens said.
Tom Partin, president of the timber industry group American Forest Resources, commended the committee for advancing the forestry bill.
"We applaud the approval of this bill and its underlying purposes, which are to provide predictable timber harvests and restore the health of federal forest lands while also generating a long-term source of revenue and jobs to rural, forested communities, rather than a mere extension of Secure Rural School subsidies," Partin said in a prepared statement.
"If I were Curry County - tied to the railroad tracks with a train bearing down on them in a dark tunnel?" DeFazio said. "The bonds will be cut. They might survive."