Oregon's OandC Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, which proposes the opening of federal land to commercial logging, passed the U.S. House of Representatives Friday morning and now faces an uphill battle in the Senate, environmental protests and a recommendation by the Obama Administration to veto the bill.
House Resolution 1526, sponsored by Sen. Ron Walden and Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, passed 244-173; it now heads to the Senate.
"This is a momentous day," Walden said via conference call. "We've got a good solid bill here. We've never been in a better position in the West as we are now. We need to get Sen. Hastings of Washington and Oregon Sen. Wyden in the Senate to get this done once and for all."
"Uncertainty still swirls," DeFazio said Friday morning.
"This is the first legislative attempt to put in place a long-term resolution of this problem and the harm it's perpetuated," he said.
HR 1526 could generate as much as $90 million a year for struggling rural Oregon counties by reopening the forest to logging. The bill also includes Secure Rural Schools payments to sustain counties until a long-term management plan is implemented.
The forest lands in question total 2.8 million acres, of which 1.2 million acres of late-succession, old-growth woods would be permanently set aside for protection, DeFazio said in a teleconference Friday morning. Ninety thousand would be designated as Wilderness, 130 miles of new Wild and Scenic Rivers would be named, and 300,000 acres of riparian areas would be protected in setbacks. It also excludes environmentally sensitive areas, parks and recreation areas, wild and scenic corridors and wilderness areas from harvest areas.
"For the first time in United States history, this would be legislatively protected," DeFazio said.
The rest would be divided and placed in a trust, with logging taking place on half in 100- to 120-year rotations and the second half managed under "more standard practices," of 30- to 40-year rotations, he said.
The forest bill is anticipated to produce 400 to 500 million board feet of timber per year - less than a third of historic levels. More than 3.5 billion board feet of timber is logged each year in the state of Oregon - with 78 percent coming from private and tribal lands.
"This summer, we had 34 times more land burned than harvested," Walden said. "This thing's out of control. We've lost 300 mills and thousands of jobs in the last couple decades. This (industry) isn't for the faint of heart, or the untrained. You lose that brainpower, that braun and that infrastructure, and we have a heck of a mess. We are on the edge of that."
Coffers in many of Oregon's 18 OandC counties have been decimated as numerous bills have wended their ways through the Legislature and courts.
And while they "won't be back to the good old days," DeFazio said, revenues would more than double what they are today.
"At least so counties can meet state mandates, sheriffs can add deputies, they can reopen jail beds, add public health that's been cut and better maintain roads, bridges and highways," DeFazio said. "All in all, that's a pretty desirable package."
"(OandC counties) need some certainty, need some predictability," DeFazio added. "This was the best approach I could forge and get out of the House of Representatives. This is the first step. House action is critical to get Senate action."
Additionally, Secure Rural Schools Act funding would be reinstated for a year - and quite possibly more.
"This has been described as the perils of Pauline," DeFazio said of OandC county fiscal problems. "We've been tied to the railroad tracks and escaped the locomotive numerous times."
Walden said the OMB recommendation to veto the bill is "deeply disappointing. It's not helpful. It's unnecessary. They don't understand reality on the ground in rural Oregon. It's very, very frustrating.
"They're living in the '90s," he added. "They don't realize what's happened in the West. You've got counties literally going broke - and you've got these raging fires."
However, Walden doesn't think the threat will hinder the bill's progress in the Senate.
"I'm a realist enough to know it'll take every ounce of power to get it over the line," he said. "I hope the senators lead the way. I honestly believe it'll turn the tide in rural Oregon over time, and get us back on our feet. It won't solve all the problems, but boy, it'll make a big difference."
Sponsors say House passage of HR 1526 is a critical first step in getting loggers back into the forests in southern Oregon, helping prevent wildfire catastrophes by sustainable thinning of trees - and rejuvenating county coffers of counties.
"Eighteen OandC counties on the brink of financial disaster can rest a little easier today," DeFazio noted in a press release. "This isn't a perfect bill, but it's the start of this legislative process and the only shot we had to move something that protects both our conservation values and vital public services out of the hyper-partisan House of Representatives."
HR 1526 faces an uphill climb in the Senate, legislators have admitted.
"So much is at stake - the very survival of communities, the bankruptcy - or not - of counties," Walden said. "This is our lifeline. You can't stand on deck and say, 'Nice lifeline, but I'm not going to throw it to the victims.'"
"If it dies in the Senate, a pox on the Senate," Walden added. "If we don't get this thing played out, it's not going to be a pretty picture."
Sen. Ron Wyden is writing a forestry bill - one that does not involve the trust - and if it passes the Senate, the two Houses will meet in conference committee to hash out differences and craft something the President will sign, he said.
Wyden plans to outline details of that plan in October.
"It's not fully fleshed out yet," DeFazio said of Wyden's bill. "If Ron comes up with a better mousetrap, I'll be there and support it."
Environmentalists are upset with HR 1526, despite years of negotiations regarding the protection of old-growth forests, streams and endangered species - and insistence on behalf of the bill sponsors that those protections will comply with environmental demands.
"Despite criticism from special interest groups, this bill includes many critical conservation victories," DeFazio said. "The House hasn't passed a wilderness bill since the Republicans took over in 2010 - yet we were able to double the Rogue Wilderness Area and create new wilderness around the Devil's Staircase (east of Reedsport)."
Oregon Wild and other environmentalists (See related story on this page), have begun advertising "awareness campaigns" to fight HR 1526 - a fight that now involves the Oregon ACLU.
DeFazio touts HR 1526 as a package that should satisfy the demands of all involved.
"If you just care about environment, you should support this bill," he said. "If you care about the economy, you should support this bill. If you care about critical services - or if you support a mix - you should support this package. This is viable and credible; it is a strong starting point in discussions with the Senate."