Obama administration axes WOPR

By Paul Fattig

For the Tidings

The Obama administration has axed a plan by the Bush administration that would have increased logging on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in Western Oregon.

The Western Oregon Plan Revisions, known by its acronym WOPR was scrapped because it failed to stand up to legal challenges under the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said during a Thursday teleconference.

"We have carefully reviewed the lawsuits filed against the WOPR and it is clear that as a result of the previous administration's late actions, the plan cannot stand up in court and, if defended, could lead to years of fruitless litigation and inaction," Salazar said.

"Now, at a time when Western Oregon communities are already struggling, we face the fallout of the previous administration's skirting of the law and efforts to taint scientific outcomes," he added.

Salazar was referring to the plan's spotted owl protections, which the Interior Department's inspector general determined were potentially jeopardized by improper political influence exerted by Julie MacDonald when she was deputy interior secretary in the Bush administration.

Salazar said the legal problems stemmed from the Bush administration's decision not to complete consultations with federal biologists on the plan's impacts on endangered species.

"It is important that we act swiftly to restore certainty to timber harvests on BLM lands and to protect vital timber infrastructure in these tough economic times," he said.

With the withdrawal of the WOPR, BLM forests in western Oregon will again be managed under the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, Salazar said. That plan had governed logging on BLM land in the region until the WOPR was completed in December, 2008.

An effort will be made to replace the WOPR, although there is no timetable, he said during the teleconference.

"We are going to work quickly," he promised.

The direct impact on BLM's Medford District could not be determined Thursday. Media calls to the local district office were referred to Celia Boddington, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

"We don't have any specific numbers," she said of the impact on individual districts. However, she noted the agencies would work quickly to identify "ecologically sound" timber sales to make wood available to the industry.

The annual allowable timber harvest on the BLM's Medford District is 57 million board feet. However, yearly harvest in recent years have generally been below that figure.

Tom Partin, president of American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, noted that the WOPR's final environmental impact statement predicted an increase of 5,000 jobs. Noting that 502 million board feet of annual timber harvest were authorized under the WOPR, he estimated it would have supported 9,036 jobs.

"We thought the WOPR was basically sound and based on good science," he said, while urging the Interior Department to move quickly, given the state's double digit unemployment rate. "Good forestry should not depend on which political party is in power. It needs to be practiced on a consistent basis. We know the BLM is up to the job."

Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which spent two years fighting the WOPR, believes the plan's demise will have little economic affect.

"The smart timber planners at the Medford BLM saw this coming," he wrote in an e-mail. "They used the transition period under WOPR to plan sales under the Northwest Forest Plan. Thus, none of the (local) timber sales are affected as they were not planned under WOPR."

He believes small-diameter thinning sales will move forward now that the controversy over the WOPR is largely over.

"I felt all along that since the WOPR was first conceived, it was trying to take us back to a time when clearcutting old growth on federal land was routine," he said. "We need to have a forward-looking plan."

Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala of Ashland, a member of the spotted owl recovery team appointed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006 said he hopes the new plan will avoid the pitfalls of the old WOPR. DellaSala blew the whistle on MacDonald's interference in the planning process.

"This is a great day for salmon, water quality and the old growth in our region," said DellaSala, executive director of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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