Senator Wyden unveils O&C timber bill

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited bill to boost logging on federal lands in Western Oregon to help struggling timber counties.

The Oregon Democrat announced his Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013 at the Capitol in Salem, saying it would double the timber harvest to more than 300 million board feet, while giving the first-ever legislative protection to old growth forests.

Still, the harvest would be less than half the logging needed to fill a $35 million annual funding gap caused by the expiration of a federal safety net, Wyden's office said.

Wyden's bill mirrors other legislation passed by the U.S. House that would split the O&C lands in two, with half managed for timber production and half for conservation of old growth forests, clean water and fish and wildlife habitat.

The key difference is that Wyden's bill leaves the lands under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and federal environmental laws, offering a streamlined process for timber sale planning that would be less vulnerable to legal challenges.

The House bill would turn half the lands over to a trust to manage for higher timber production under Oregon's more lenient logging rules. The White House has threatened to veto the House bill.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, who joined Wyden in making the announcement, suggested the ultimate solution lies somewhere between Wyden's bill and the one approved in the House.

"I believe that with these two bills we are going to be able to build a bridge and find a compromise that works for all Oregonians and hopefully is signed by the president in 2014," Kitzhaber said.

Both bills cover the management of a patchwork of 2.1 million acres of federal lands in 18 Western Oregon counties that reverted to the federal government after the Oregon & California Railroad went bust.

Support for the bill among representatives of the timber industry and timber counties was split among those who want federal control and those who back management by a trust.

"Stability for the wood products industry in Oregon is access to a predictable and sustainable source of timber for our mills," said Andrew Miller of Stimson Lumber, who joined Wyden during the announcement. "I believe the senator's approach is the only one that will work politically."

Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner and president of the O&C Counties Association, which represents the 18 counties that get a 50 percent share of federal logging revenue from local O&C lands, said he was not convinced that Wyden's effort to streamline timber sale planning and avoid lawsuits would be as effective as the House bill.

Wyden said he can't get a bill passed by the Senate and signed by the president if it follows the lead of the House on environmental protection.

"We tried that in the 1990s," he said of legislation known as the Salvage Rider that pushed to toss out environmental laws to promote old growth logging at the height of the conflict over logging in the Northwest. "There was blood all over the floor. Communities were divided like never before."

The conservation community was split, as well.

Nicole Cordan, public lands officer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, praised Wyden's bill as "a constructive path forward that works to balance conservation gains with timber harvesting."

Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the bill would harm forests, watersheds, fish and wildlife, and undo the delicate compromise of the Northwest Forest Plan.

"If Sen. Wyden proceeds with the bill as drafted it could re-ignite the Pacific Northwest timber wars," Spivak said.

Wyden also pledged to restore a safety net that gave timber counties money to make up for a steep decline in federal revenue after logging was cut by 90 percent on national forests in 1994 by the Northwest Forest Plan to protect salmon and the northern spotted owl.

Counties that relied on federal timber revenue have struggled to pay for jails and sheriff's patrols as voters resisted tax increases. Meanwhile, timber industry jobs declined through a combination of the logging cutbacks and automation.

Unlike U.S. Forest Service lands that share 25 percent of revenue with counties for roads and schools, the O&C lands share 50 percent, with no restrictions.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chief architect of the House bill, said he had not seen Wyden's bill but looked forward to the Senate passing something that could be melded with the House bill to produce legislation that would be signed by the president.

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