Task force finds obstacles remain to Ore. logging

GRANTS PASS — A federal task force said Thursday that major obstacles — from deep mistrust to policies demanding protection of threatened species — still stand in the way of increasing logging in Western Oregon.

The timber industry responded that the Obama administration was letting down rural timber towns with struggling economies.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar created the task force a year ago after dissolving the Bush administration plan to boost logging on U.S. Bureau of Land Management timberlands. Salazar said the Western Oregon Plan Revision, or WOPR, was indefensible under the Endangered Species Act.

WOPR was created to restore a higher level of logging to a checkerboard of BLM timberlands known as O&C lands because they were once owned by the Oregon & California Railroad. Fish and wildlife protections over the past 20 years have cut back log supplies as well as federal revenues shared by timber counties. Congress has authorized a series of payments to make up for the lost logging revenues, but counties still struggle.

Economists have noted that the prosperity enjoyed by timber towns in the 1980s is unlikely to come back any time soon. Even if environmental protections didn't reduce log supplies, jobs would be down from automation and demand for lumber would be down from the housing market bust.

The task force found that policies for protecting salmon and spotted owl habitat created by the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994 still stand in the way of intensive logging, a high level of mistrust remains between the timber industry and conservation groups, and federal planning documents used to lay out timber sales are so broad they won't stand up to Endangered Species Act demands.

The report said non-controversial thinning projects that have accounted for most of the logging in recent years are running out, and it called for a time-out on logging in spotted owl habitat while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finishes revising protections for the bird.

"We had hoped the report would provide clear direction for bringing sustainable management back to the 2.1 million acres of Oregon's O&C county timberlands to support our communities and local governments," Tom Partin, president of the timber industry group American Forest Resource Council, said in a statement. "Instead, the report calls for several more layers of bureaucracy."

The report suggested creation of several new committees to look for solutions to lingering problems. Among them would be a team to review the science used to crate WOPR, as well as the needs of species that depend on old growth forests. It also recommended a new steering committee to create a common vision for management of Northwest Forests while meeting the demands of environmental laws.

It urged BLM and the Forest Service to draw up plans for three years' worth of timber sales to bridge the gap until new BLM management plans can be developed for the O&C lands.

Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild, a conservation group, said the report seemed to ignore the fact that the government has been struggling with these issues for 20 years.

"All we need to do is set up another committee and study harder and we will figure out how to sustainably log old growth forests in some magical way that does not harm spotted owls and salmon and destroy our climate," he said.

Heiken added that as long as the private lands mixed in with O&C lands are logged intensively, the federal lands will bear the greater burden for conservation.

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