The bipartisan concept — championed by U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, both Democrats, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican — revolves around a new management strategy for 2.7 million acres of federal forestland, known as the O&C lands, currently overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
O&C lands, named after the long-defunct Oregon and California Railroad Co., are found only in Oregon.
Under the plan, logging would increase on almost 1.5 million acres of “young growth” forest, which the act describes as “generally previously managed stands of timber younger than 80 years and not older than 125 years.” A portion of logging proceeds would go to 18 Oregon counties, including Lane County, to help fund law enforcement and other services.
A governor-appointed board of trustees would take control of those 1.5 million acres and would pay the federal government $10 million for doing that. It also would pick up the costs of managing the lands, thereby saving the federal government $110 million annually, the lawmakers said.
The remaining “old growth” forestland would be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service and granted legal protections against any additional logging.
The concept also designates the Devil’s Staircase, land in the Coast Range between the Smith and Umpqua Rivers, as a new wilderness area and increases the size of the Wild Rogue Wilderness Area near Grants Pass — two longtime goals of Oregon’s environmental community.
“We believe we’ve crafted a solution that will provide sustainability for these counties ... sustainability and predictability to the timber industry, jobs in rural areas and permanent protection and sustainability for the environment,” DeFazio said at a Thursday news conference.
Added Schrader: “It’s time to use our natural resources in a thoughtful, sustainable manner. ... We’re trying to break through that paradigm ... (of) the old timber wars.”
But the concept has already taken a hit in Washington, D.C., where it was not included in a wider bill seeking to replace the so-called federal timber payments made to local governments nationwide since 2000.
That bill — sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington Republican — centers on requiring individual federally owned forests to produce logging revenue equaling 60 percent of what they produced on average annually between 1980 and 2000. That proposal, which received a hearing on Thursday, has already drawn fire from environmental groups.
DeFazio called Hastings’ bill “quite controversial,” as he said it would require the suspension of “most federal (environmental) laws” in order to carry out the logging.
DeFazio and Schrader said objections from Hastings and other members of the GOP-dominated House Resources Committee were the reason their concept wasn’t included in the wider bill.
DeFazio said the issue of transition payments for Oregon counties while a new Oregon management system is established was a “major concern” for those critics, as well as “the state-specific” nature of the O&C lands.
Added Schrader: “Given the nature of the majority in that committee, some of this is a tough hill to climb.”
DeFazio and Schrader indicated that they would be willing to present the concept as a stand-alone piece of legislation in either congressional chamber.
Although the O&C lands concept is less far-reaching than Hastings’ bill, Oregon environmental groups were unimpressed.
“Once again, this is an attempt to make overlogged federal forest lands into piggy banks,” said Josh Laughlin, a campaign director for Cascadia Wildlands, a Eugene-based nonprofit group.
Laughlin argued that the added protections for old growth forests and wilderness areas offered as “sweeteners” in the proposal were superfluous because the general public would strongly oppose any logging on old growth land anyway.
“That forest is de facto protected because public agencies have lost their social license to log in them,” he said.
Sean Stevens, a spokesman for Oregon Wild, a Portland-based advocacy group, said raising property taxes in rural counties has to be the primary funding solution, if timber payments end. Politicians, he added, are unwilling to acknowledge that.
“We’re seeing how people in positions of power are between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “They know how unpopular (raising taxes) is, so they’ll throw a proposal out there ... and when it fails, they can pin it on the environmentalists.”
Stevens added that his organization had “taken unpopular positions before” on Oregon’s forests, positions the general public had ultimately come around to.
Laughlin said environmentalists would be unlikely to compromise on any proposal that involved increasing logging in federal forests.
“Those compromises have happened already,” he said. “Climate crisis and species extinction are very real problems.”
DeFazio isn’t sure how much the plan would generate for affected counties, but he said it would be at least as much as they got in their most recent annual federal payment.
O&C LANDS PROPOSAL
All logging on O&C lands would have to comply with the same federal and state laws as current logging on private lands
50 percent of the forestland designated for harvesting would be logged on a long 100- to 120-year rotation
Exports of the O&C logs would be prohibited, as would “old growth” harvesting
The governor would appoint a seven-member board containing three government representatives, two representatives of the wood products industry, one scientist and one member of the general public
The board would establish a $125 million reserve fund for counties to guard against timber market fluctuations
All minerals and other subsurface materials would remain under federal control
All legal challenges to the bill would have to be filed within 60 days of enactment