Wyden introduces bill to restore jobs and forests

GRANTS PASS — Longtime adversaries in the bitter battle over Northwest logging have come together to support legislation to restore timber jobs and protect old growth in Eastern Oregon's six national forests.

Representatives of the timber industry and conservation groups who fought each other for decades in courtrooms and the halls of Congress joined Sen. Ron Wyden in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday when he introduced the bill in the Senate.

The Oregon Democrat said the bill represents nearly a year of talks between timber and conservation groups, and he hopes it will serve as a foundation for expanding forest restoration and timber jobs on the west side of the Cascades and across the rest of the nation.

"This bill is to put Congress on record saying it wants to direct the Forest Service to do business differently," Wyden said in a teleconference. "I want to see Congress show the Forest Service and the country there is a new day — that forest restoration is the guiding principle. We want to enable that principal to fashion increased timber production and also protect forests that Oregonians treasure."

The national forests of the Northwest were once the timberbasket of the nation, but logging has declined to a fraction of former levels as it became clear that salmon, northern spotted owls and other wildlife were heading toward extinction from the loss of their habitat.

The Bush administration tried hard to boost logging to fulfill campaign promises to the timber industry, but those efforts were repeatedly stuck down by federal courts, and private lands and imports now provide the bulk of the nation's timber.

The bill would authorize an extra $50 million for the Forest Service to shift its focus to large-scale forest restoration projects, tripling the number of acres thinned over the next three years. It also bars logging most large trees and along streams, limits permanent road building, and streamlines the process for lodging environmental objections to projects.

While restoring ecological conditions skewed by a century of misguided logging practices and not letting fire play its natural role of keeping forests healthy, it would also rescue struggling mills and logging operations crucial to the restoration work, Wyden said.

"The areas of agreement between the conservation community and the timber industry mean that's the end of the timber wars," said Andy Kerr, a conservation consultant who was repeatedly hanged in effigy by loggers when he was conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council and helped lead the fight to stop old growth logging in the Northwest.

"Isn't life ironic?" Kerr said. "I was happy to see mills close when they were cutting nothing but old growth forest. But because of fire suppression, livestock grazing and high-grade logging these many hundreds of thousands of acres of these forests are overgrown with ecologically problematic trees. Turning those trees into commercially valuable logs as part of comprehensive forest and watershed restoration is just fine with us."

At the urging of Wade Moseby of Collins Pine, Kerr said he got together with John Shelk, president of Ochoco Lumber, in January. Ochoco had to shut down its mill in Prineville several years ago but has used to value of its timberlands to leverage projects overseas. They drew in parties from both sides to work on a compromise on managing national forests in all of Oregon that could be laid down in law rather than subject to administrative change.

Talks broke down over the west side of Oregon, which is home to spotted owls, salmon and the richest timber sands. Talks continued on the east side, and last April, Shelk and Kerr went to Wyden with an agreement in principle. Word-by-word negotiations over the final bill finished Friday.

"In order for this legislation to bear fruit, it is vital that all interested parties commit to overcoming the gridlock currently plaguing federal forest management," Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said in a statement.

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