By Alison Martin
On Dec. 1, timber interest groups issued a lukewarm response to a new management plan for more than 2 million acres of forests in western Oregon, known as the Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) Revested Lands.
Eighteen Oregon Counties, to include Josephine County, relied for decades on these lands as a source of revenue, as the federal government compensated the counties for their absentee stewardship of the land.
Sen. Ron Wyden released long-awaited revisions to Rep. Peter DeFazio’s “O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act” in late November, along with a section-by-section analysis of the bill, which is intended to clarify its direct impact on timber lands and residents of timber-dependent counties.
The Association of O&C Counties, a logging industry lobby, worries that Wyden’s plan won’t restore dwindling rural economies. “We will give it fair consideration,” said Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, the association’s president, in a press release. “On first reading it appears our communities are left far short of where we need to be in terms of sustainable jobs and revenue for public services in rural communities.”
At stake is the future of the 2.6 million acres of O&C lands. The forest parcels were initially proposed for the development of an interstate railroad until it was reclaimed by the federal government. Wyden's legislation would amend the original Oregon and California Lands Act of 1937, which required the lands be managed for timber production, with the majority of the proceeds going to county governments.
Compared to the last ten years, the new act will drastically increase timber harvests on O&C lands for decades, while permanently protecting old growth forests. “This new foundation will more than double our timber harvests … and ensure that harvest continues for years to come,” Wyden said in a press release. “This approach will create a sturdier economic foundation for the O&C counties, centered on new middle class jobs.”
According to the analysis, the bill would double timber harvests and provide almost enough revenue to replace current federal aid for O&C counties, but metropolitan counties would gain a large amount of new revenue.
By 2023, the bill would allow for $33 million in annual timber revenue for Oregon's O&C counties. However, rural counties would see substantial revenue losses compared to what they received from Secure Rural Schools Act payments, which compensated counties that experienced a decline in timber revenues, while urban counties will see their payments increase by up to 80 percent.
Wyden's bill specifies that timber revenue will be distributed based on the relative taxable value of land as of 1915, providing a higher per-acre share of receipts to counties, including rural ones, like Josephine and Linn County.
In response, The Association of O&C Counties, which has been advocating for increased timber harvests, argues that it's unclear whether Wyden's bill could deliver on his promises and level lost revenue. In a preliminary analysis, members of the association said they prefer the House bill championed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, which received a veto threat from presidential staff over conservation concerns, resulting in Sen. Wyden’s version.
Because O&C lands are overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, they require federal legislation to make any revisions to the management program. Therefore, the House bill would serve to protect half the area and place the rest in a public trust, allowing more timber cutting on those lands than Wyden's bill.
The Association of O&C Counties estimates that Wyden's bill would generate revenues from timber harvests to provide about $18 million a year for county services, compared to the whopping $100 million a year from the “DeFazio bill.”
"The bill itself, we think, has significant shortcomings, but it gives us something to work on," Robertson said.
Oregon's timber-dependent counties have struggled to stay afloat across a 20-year decline in logging on federal lands. The crisis has since magnified after federal support payments to timber counties dried up, forcing officials to make massive cuts in jail, patrol and other public safety services.
Both Curry and Josephine counties have been unable to provide essential, around-the-clock patrols and can’t facilitate use of their own jail spaces. Inmates charged for drug crimes, simple assault and burglary were the lucky beneficiaries of the $12 million Josephine County budget tanking to about $4 million, resulting in, among other things, mass prisoner releases in 2012.
The Association of O&C Counties is standing by the idea that the solution is to allow greater logging on federal lands. For decades, the federal timberlands that were once owned by the Oregon & California Railroad, have provided harvest revenues to the counties and covered nearly all of their local government needs and enabled them to have low property tax rates in the first place.
Battles over natural resources have been fiercely fought by industrialists and environmentalists for nearly a quarter-century. It was in 1937 though that Oregon became the largest supplier of timber in the country. By the mid-1940s the demand for timber was on the rise, fueled by a wartime demand for construction materials.
Leaders ultimately became concerned about the accelerated cutting that was quickly consuming Oregon's private and public timber lands, estimating that nearly 10 percent of the country's timber supply was coming from public forests. The fear that foresters would soon exceed sustained-yield cutting budgets fueled what came to be called the “timber wars.”
Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says the Wyden bill would harm forests, watersheds, fish and wildlife, and undo the compromise of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, which protected not only old-growth trees, but endangered species. “If Sen. Wyden proceeds with the bill as drafted it could re-ignite the timber wars,” Spivak says.
Environmentalists, in the late 1980s, feared that the overexploitation of the forests and surrounding communities would create a heavier burden on long-term costs to both industry and environment. The compromise has always been to maintain timber production and support local sawmills, while protecting endangered species like the Coho salmon and Northern Spotted Owl.
In an effort to pacify both sides, Wyden's bill would split the O&C lands in two, with half managed for timber production and half for the conservation of old growth forests and wildlife habitat.
itself has significant shortcoming
but it gives us something to work on.
This new foundation will more than double our timber harvests
Sen. Ron Wyden
Douglas County Commissioner
If Sen. Wyden proceeds with the bill as drafted it could re-ignite the Pacific Northwest timber wars.
public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity
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