Walden is optimistic on O&C Trust legislation

When it comes to searching for support for the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, co-author U.S. Rep. Greg Walden left no rock unturned.

"I've made this a real top priority — I've called in every chit I've got for this one," said Walden, R-Ore., representative for the 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Eastern Oregon, along with Jackson County and a portion of Josephine County.

With a commitment from the majority leader in the Republican-controlled House that the measure would be brought to the floor for a vote in September, he expects action on it within weeks.

"We only have nine legislative days in September," he said Monday. "We will have it out of the House in a few weeks. Then it will go up to the Senate and whatever Sen. Wyden is putting together. We will have to work out the difference."

Oregon senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is expected to come out with his own proposal in the coming weeks.

"Senator Wyden is the chairman of a powerful committee," Walden said. "He wields a big gavel in this debate."

The two share many of the same concerns, Walden said, though admitting he didn't know what Wyden will propose.

"What I do know is we have to move — we cannot wait," he said.

Authored by Walden and Oregon U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, both Democrats, the O&C Trust act would place the roughly 2.6 million acres of O&C land on U.S. Bureau of Land Management forests in Western Oregon into two trusts. Roughly half of it would be managed for conservation, while the remainder would focus on sustainable timber production to help fund county coffers.

The proposal is supported by both the Oregon House and Senate, 15 boards of commissioners, the Oregon State Sheriffs Association and timber industry groups. Supporters say economic relief is desperately needed for the budget-strapped 18 Western Oregon counties that have been dependent for decades on timber-based payments from former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands.

The proposal is opposed by many major environmental groups in Oregon.

The statewide conservation group Oregon Wild on Monday named the O&C lands in Western Oregon as the most endangered place in its fifth annual Oregon's 10 Most Endangered Places list.

"These forests are in our backyards — they are the places that give us clean drinking water, old-growth forests to hike in, and a foundation for our tourism and recreation economy," Oregon Wild Executive Director Sean Stevens said in a prepared statement.

"Usually, when we compile the 10 Most Endangered list we have a hard time figuring out which place is most threatened, but not this year," he added. "The scale of clearcut logging proposed and the fact that this legislation represents a 1.5 million-acre land grab for the logging industry made the choice easy."

But Walden called the proposal a balanced approach.

"We've tried to thread this needle by being good stewards of the land, and with progressive and active management," he said.

The bill calls for slightly more than half of the O&C lands — 1.47 million acres of previously managed timberlands — to be sustainably managed for timber production, with a portion of the revenues going to the 18 O&C counties in Western Oregon.

The remainder of the O&C lands would be managed by the U.S. Forest Service as old-growth forest preserves, including tracts of land with trees that are more than 120 years old.

It also would add 58,100 acres to the Rogue Wilderness Area in the lower Rogue River drainage. The proposal designates 93 miles of 35 tributaries of the Rogue as either "wild," "scenic" or "recreational" under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Finally, it would withdraw 19 tributaries on the Rogue from mining as well as 11 miles on the Chetco River.

"It protects some lands, but we also get some controverted land back into production," Walden said. "There are trade-offs here."

Walden said he insisted the legislation include language that states the wilderness doesn't become official until the trust is operative.

"If, for some reason, the trust gets thrown out by litigation, the wilderness will also be thrown out," he said, adding, "I'm committed to getting jobs, revenue and active management out of this."

The legislation should produce about 3,000 jobs and about $120 million in revenue to the counties each year, he estimated, noting that several studies have come up with those figures.

"We've got this bipartisan agreement in a time when there is very little bipartisanship," Walden said, noting he is optimistic about the future of the legislation. "We know this can pass the House."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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