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Forest  Fight

Is there room to compromise on DeFazio’s forest plan?

Cut a forest in half and nobody is happy — not the timber beasts, nor the treehuggers. 

You know why they teach sharing in kindergarten? Because it sucks to give something away without a promise you’ll get something better in return. Studies of little kids show that as they get older and develop their cognitive skills, they share more because they understand reciprocity better. 

Then those kids grow up to be loggers, environmentalists, politicians and policy wonks, and the sharing and compromise thing gets all messed up again. 

 

Congressman Peter DeFazio says the plan for Oregon’s O&C forestlands (named for the Oregon and California Railroad) that he has devised with fellow Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader and Republican Greg Walden solves 30 years of gridlock over logging in Oregon’s federal forests. The forest will be shared between saving trees and logging for profit.

Conservationists say the congressman’s O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act is going to hurt the forests more than it will help anyone. 

At the heart of the issue is what to do with more than 2.5 million acres of public forests in Oregon. DeFazio’s plan would essentially give half the forest — 1.5 million acres — to a “timber trust” to log and generate money for the counties. The other half would be managed for “conservation values” by the Forest Service, and according to DeFazio, protect Oregon’s old growth once and for all. But so far no conservation group seems to have endorsed the plan. Instead, enviros have expressed concerns over the effects the logging will have on Eugene’s water supply, wildlife and the future of Western Oregon’s remaining native forests — without fixing county budget woes.

DeFazio has a reputation for being a bit irascible and for being an equal-opportunity offender, just as he recently referred to Republicans as “bozos,” he also calls some environmentalist critiques of his plan “bullshit.” 

But the enviros, long supporters of DeFazio, are firing back. They say the congressman’s plan is a “turd,” noting that the nods to wilderness protections it contains are “lipstick on a pig.” 

So why did DeFazio put this plan out there?

 

The Plan

The O&C lands are a complicated mess. It’s a lot of land, with a lot of different values — beauty, water, wildlife and timber, to name a few. And it’s acreage that’s locked into a complex system of federal lands and politics. 

The O&C lands are a legacy of a railroad deal gone awry. Like most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, they create a visual checkerboard on a map: little one-mile squares of public land, mixed with squares of private. 

“It’s a nightmare; it’s a jigsaw puzzle; it’s a crazy quilt,” Randi Spivak of the Geos Institute says of the O&C lands map and DeFazio’s proposal. “It’s a total industrial management paradigm that shows a lack of understanding of ecology,” she adds. 

The “DeFazio plan” was originally the “Andy Stahl plan.” Stahl is the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and currently a candidate for Lane County commissioner. 

DeFazio is not all that fond of calling the proposal the DeFazio plan; he says it’s the DeFazio-Walden-Schrader plan, and “if it was the DeFazio plan, it would be different.” It’s not what Republican Greg Walden would have written either, he says dryly. 

Stahl says he devised his plan five years ago based on an approach to the logging vs. native-forest-preservation controversy in New Zealand, where many acres of forest had been cut down and replanted with tree farms of exotic species. The New Zealand model, which involved preserving native forests and leasing out and selling off the tree farms, “paid down the national debt and ended the timber wars for good,” he says.

But Stahl says that although his proposal kicked things off, he was not involved in drafting the current DeFazio plan. “There are things that need to be corrected and improved if it will go forward,” he says.

 

Splitting the Baby

“It’s a radical proposal,” says longtime environmentalist Andy Kerr of The Larch Company. 

Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, which also opposes the plan, calls it “splitting the baby.”  

Pedery says that rather than administering the “bitter medicine” of raising taxes, DeFazio would prefer to tell people: “Don’t worry, be happy; we can log our way out of this.”

In her analysis of the proposal, Randi Spivak writes that it will privatize 1.5 million acres of publicly owned O&C land — this would include some lands in the national forest system — and clearcut them. 

The 1.5 million acres of timber-trust lands include forests that are125 years old and younger. Some of those lands are native forests, never logged and on their way to becoming old growth, environmentalists say. The timber trust would be managed by a board of trustees appointed by the governor and focused on maximizing revenues from logging to benefit Western Oregon’s 18 O&C counties. 

Spivak points out that some of the native 125-year-old and younger forests contain patches of old-growth trees, and that those ancient trees would also be cut. Some of the timber-trust lands would be cut every 120 years and some as frequently as every 40 years.

About 800,000 acres of forest older than 125 years would get transferred to the Forest Service and managed under the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), and some of those trees would be designated old growth and therefore protected. Another 50,000 or so acres of public forests would be logged by Coos County to generate money for both Coos and Douglas counties.

Currently, if a conservation group has reservations about a federal timber sale or a clearcut, it can appeal the sale and take the matter to court. Under DeFazio’s plan, that option for saving these public forests would be gone. “They can litigate the legislation,” DeFazio says, but there would no longer be a federal process for each timber sale. As long as the logging on the timber-trust lands followed the rules, a lawsuit wouldn’t go anywhere, DeFazio says. 

Kerr calls the plan “poorly conceived and poorly drafted” and says trust members would have to “clearcut the shit” or violate the fiduciary obligation. “There is no discretion to do good,” Kerr says. 

 

Timber and Taxes

Since the 1930s, county finances have been tied to logging on the O&C lands. The idea was that having 50 percent of the logging receipts going to the counties would make up for large swathes of the counties’ lands being nontaxable. It might have seemed like a great idea at the time, but the O&C lands have been at the center of disputes and lawsuits for years.

 After Oregon timber harvests began to slow in the late 1980s, the money stopped coming. Congress then stepped in with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which has provided direct federal payments to counties. The act was renewed several times, but the last payment to the counties was in 2011, leaving county funding again uncertain. 

DeFazio’s plan is an effort to give the Oregon counties the money they need, while at the same time implementing the first protections for old-growth trees on O&C lands, he says. He sweetens the pot by adding in some wilderness protection, too — DeFazio says his proposal would protect 90,000 acres of Oregon forests as wilderness, and adds 150 miles of Oregon rivers to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. 

Most of the wilderness is in his district, according to DeFazio, though he adds that Walden, the Republican, is taking heat for participating in wilderness protection. “They’re calling me a timber beast, and he’s being called an environmental radical,” DeFazio notes.

A companion bill in the Senate might fix some of the issues people have with the proposed legislation, the congressman says. 

Courtney Warner Crowell from Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office says that the “DeFazio-Walden-Schrader concept is one that Sen. Merkley has been interested in for a long time.” She says the senator will be watching to see what they can get through the House and “will work closely with Sen. Wyden to build consensus in the Senate around creating sustainable timber harvests while protecting Oregon’s forests for future generations.” 

Wyden is a senior Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. 

 

More Harm than Good?

Throw a rock at a crowd of environmentalists and you’re guaranteed to hit someone who hates the DeFazio plan — unless you happen to nail Andy Stahl. Stahl is one of the few people on the conservation side of things who sees the plan as salvageable. 

Stahl brandishes an 83-page printout of the draft bill, which bristles with Post-It notes, each marking a change he would make that would render the bill palatable. He criticizes the make-up of the board, the way the timber would be sold, and its language on everything from fire suppression to dealing with endangered species such as the spotted owl.

Kerr, Oregon Wild and other opponents don’t see the bill as fixable at all. “I would view it as a turd that I wouldn’t want to try to polish,” Kerr says. 

Pedery says Stahl’s original proposal “rolled back the clock to 1992.” He says, “Andy has never really moved beyond the timber wars of the 1990s.” Those were the days when loggers sported bumper stickers that proclaimed “spotted owl tastes better fried.” 

The issue isn’t just owls, these days conservationists say it’s ecosystems. Pedery says the real policy debate has to be “whether or not we move into conservation forestry.”

DeFazio says his plan allows for that. He points to the pilot projects of Northwest forestry professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin. He grumbles that environmentalists have stymied even those projects that are aimed at improving forest health. 

The proposed bill suspends environmental laws, Spivak says. The trees would be logged and the forests managed under the Oregon Forest Practices Act (FPA). DeFazio’s bill “exempts the very weak private lands protection for endangered species,” she says.

DeFazio says if people don’t like the FPA, then they need to get to work changing it.

The bill also raises hackles about the Clean Water Act. Spivak says it would waive requirements for pollution permits for certain logging roads and drainage ditches — logging roads create sediment that clogs salmon streams. This doesn’t just harm the fish; it could harm fishing industries and affect drinking water. 

Also, the Oregon Forest Practices Act that applies to private timberlands, and would apply to the timber trust, has very different stream protections than federal lands logging. Logging buffers that were 170 to 340 feet under the NWFP could get reduced to as low as zero to 20 feet, depending on whether fish live in the stream or not.

“The bill is an unmitigated hydrological disaster,” Pedery says. “One dirty little secret of the logging industry” is that the sediments it churns in water forcing cities to invest in expensive filtration systems, he says. 

Some of the lands included in the bill are lands up the McKenzie — the source of Eugene’s drinking water. “The potential for clearcutting in the McKenzie is a big one,” Pedery says. 

Kerr agrees. “One of DeFazio’s clearcut legacies will be dirty drinking water,” he says. 

DeFazio counters these concerns by pointing out that the massive amounts of logging that occurred up the McKenzie in the ’80s was “way more than we propose to cut.” The current designation of the forests in that area allows for clearcutting old growth, something his plan would prevent, DeFazio adds.

Another concern for water, and for human health too, is pesticide spraying, says Kim Leval of the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP). Pesticides are rarely used on Forest Service lands, and the BLM uses integrated pesticide management (IPM), which means spraying unwanted weeds, trees and bugs with toxic chemicals is not necessarily the first step in dealing with them. 

The DeFazio plan calls for using IPM on the timber-trust lands, but Leval says that given the way the trust is set up, “The focus would be on getting the revenue off the land, not on careful, preventative measures and IPM.” 

The plan has the potential to take steps backward for endangered species, such as salmon, which are harmed by pesticides, as well as for community health, Leval says. She points out that communities like Triangle Lake in the Coast Range already deal with increased exposures to pesticides due to the private timberlands that surround them. The timber trust would face the same pressures to grow more trees faster, she says, and so the nearby communities could face the increased use of pesticides.

 

Trees vs. Counties?

While rural communities might be wary of toxic pesticide sprays, they are also dealing with the loss of jobs, not to mention the same county budget cuts affecting city dwellers. Oregon counties have not had certainty in their funding for years. DeFazio says his plan will do just that — give counties an assurance of funding, as well as providing rural jobs. 

But, “How far do you go to prop up counties?” Kerr asks. He says the bill “dramatically increases logging levels, dramatically imperils more species, dramatically degrades water quality.” 

Kerr adds, “There are better ways.”

Lane County Commissioner Rob Handy agrees that there are better ways to get money out of Oregon’s forests than privatizing public lands, and he says ramping up logging on O&C lands won’t create rural jobs here in Lane County.

Handy says Lane County is losing $20 million a year through forest tax exemptions on private forestlands, such as a harvest tax relief for owners of more than 5,000 acres. Such tax breaks don’t help little mom and pop operations, he says, only the industrial timberlands. 

Spencer Lennard of Big Wildlife down in economically hard-hit Josephine County says it wouldn’t hurt to increase the taxes on smaller plots of private forests either. He says he owns 39 acres of land that is zoned forest commercial. “We pay $3 a year on 39 acres,” he says.

Lennard says,  “Just tax us, please.”

Oregon Wild, the Geos Institute and other groups against the DeFazio plan agree with Lennard. They say counties can get funded without hurting Oregon’s forests and clean water. They propose a “shared responsibility” plan of tax reform at the county level, along with reforming the excise tax that allows logging corporations to export raw logs to China while paying low taxes, as well as transferring management of the BLM lands to the Forest Service.

Property taxes in Oregon are incredibly low, Kerr says. 

DeFazio points out that Oregon’s Measure 5, passed in 1990, limited property tax rates, and he pooh-poohs the shared responsibility plan, which he says is flawed. “Some people seem to lack education in government,” he says. 

 

Something to Chew On

The biblical tale of splitting the baby that Pedery alludes to is not so much about mothers and babies as it is about proposing a radical solution that discerns what the true situation is — in order to make the right decision. So what does the threat of splitting the O&C lands baby do?

DeFazio says his plan, or rather the DeFazio-Walden-Schrader plan, is a defensible starting point for resolving the timber wars and the county funding crisis, especially given the current climate in Congress. He says a lawsuit in Washington, D.C. is one of the motivations to get this legislation under way.

The enviros might look askance at the notion that the DeFazio plan could end the timber wars, but OSU forestry professor Norm Johnson, one of the authors of the Northwest Forest Plan, which determines how most logging is done on federal forests, agrees. He is one of the few people taking a middle-ground approach to the forest fight.

Johnson says the plan “triggers a discussion of the long-term future of these lands that we haven’t seen in over a decade.”  It has text and maps and it “gives us something real to chew on.” 

From his science-oriented perspective, the plan has pluses and minuses. The negatives include the potential for clearcutting, that it allows the potential for broad use of herbicides and the possibility of cutting older trees in younger stands. 

But, on the other hand, he says, it has some “tremendous conservation accomplishments” in that it offers protection for trees more than 120 years old, it has a sustained yield requirement that means “you can’t just go in and cut it all down,” and half of the timber trust is on a 120-year rotation. 

Johnson says that he and Jerry Franklin, along with their students, are working to strengthen the plan. For example, in conjunction with aquatic specialists they are exploring changes to the riparian buffers so that they’d take up less area than the streamside protections of the NWFP, yet offer more protection for water than the Oregon Forest Practices Act offers.

It’s exciting that DeFazio’s bill is the first time early seral forests have been mentioned in federal legislation, Johnson says. Early seral forests are a stage after a disturbance like fire, before conifers dominate. While old-growth forests and spotted owls may be the superstars of forest debates, Johnson says that early seral forests are the most biologically diverse and also the most rare. 

Johnson says he hopes that as the discussion of the DeFazio plan continues, it will be enriched by information from the pilot projects he and Franklin are working on; these projects look at different ways of managing the moist forests found around the Willamette Valley and the dry forests of southern Oregon and the east side, in order to generate timber and protect ecosystems. 

Developing a forest plan is a long, difficult process, Johnson says, but now that the DeFazio plan has been put out there, everyone can “sit down and have a good argument.”