A Long-term Solution

Decline in federal timber replacement payments reached a crisis point two years ago

When I ran for Congress in 1986 I campaigned against the unsustainable timber harvest levels in western Oregon. Back then the Bureau of Land Management was logging 1.6 billion board feet per year on the statutorily unique O&C lands.

I advocated for a 30 to 40 percent reduction on the O&C lands. But today, O&C timber harvests have dropped by more than 85 percent. I didn’t think then, and I don’t think now, that an 85 percent reduction is necessary to protect old growth, rivers, streams and wildlife — particularly given its negative impact on county revenues and rural communities.

The dramatic decline in the federal timber supply has shifted timber harvest to private lands, which are regulated by the less protective Oregon Forest Practices Act. Now, more than 75 percent of all timber in Oregon comes from private lands which have no restrictions on log exports.

The lack of responsible, sustainable management on the O&C lands has cost thousands of jobs in southwest Oregon, left the previously managed areas of these forests less healthy and some prone to fire, and blown massive holes in county budgets.

With the steep decline in federal timber replacement payments to counties we reached a crisis point two years ago. Sen. Ron Wyden, Gov. John Kitzhaber and I came together and agreed to principles for a long-term O&C lands solution.

These principles are consistent with the priorities of a majority of Oregonians: permanent protection for old growth forests and pristine rivers; permanent revenues to maintain essential government services like law enforcement, health care and education; and sustainable timber harvests to support local communities and workers.

Throughout a long and difficult negotiation, I fought to include these principles into a bipartisan bill called the O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act (OCTCJA). Many people said passing an O&C bill with old-growth protection and wilderness out of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives would be impossible. Against all odds, I was able to secure both in the House bill. Out of necessity, this bill is a compromise and not the bill I would have written in the majority.

Despite misrepresentations of the bill, including in Andy Kerr’s recent attack published in Eugene Weekly [11-7], the OCTCJA would:

• Include the first wilderness to pass the House since the Republican takeover in 2010;

• Maintain federal ownership and access of all O&C lands;

• Provide the first ever legislative protection for 1.2 million acres of mature and old growth forests in Western Oregon;

• It would also prohibit logging on an additional 300,000 acres of riparian reserves to protect rivers, streams and drinking water supplies;

• Protect 130 miles of Oregon rivers, including the Rogue, and add 90,000 acres of wilderness;

• Require strict management guidelines to prevent against overcutting and to protect terrestrial and aquatic values;

• Continue the federal prohibition — which I authored — on raw log exports from O&C lands;

• Create thousands of private sector jobs in southwest Oregon communities;

• Provide all struggling O&C counties with $80 million to $90 million per year for essential government services.

The bill is not perfect. The passage of this bill in the House is the start of a long legislative process. It’s the first step in providing a realistic way forward to solve an incredibly complex challenge that has plagued Western Oregon for a century. In fact, it was this legislation that kick started a local stakeholder process, convened by Governor Kitzhaber. Stakeholders included members of the conservation community, timber industry, county governments and tribes.

When Andy Kerr was asked by the governor to participate, he not only refused, he denounced the collaborative as “lipstick on a pig.”

It’s not Kerr’s job to solve the chronic, real unemployment over 20 percent that has plagued rural southwest Oregon counties for years. He doesn’t need to worry that two Oregon counties are on the brink of state receivership — with two more close behind — because these counties cannot provide basic services to their residents. This is a person who actually publicly cheered the closure of the last mill in Josephine County and the pink slips handed to 85 blue-collar workers in Cave Junction.

Failing counties, crippling unemployment, poverty, unpatrolled roads and neighborhoods — not Kerr’s concerns. He’s a Washington, D.C., resident and lobbyist. He gets paid by private funders to try and drive federal timber harvests to zero, no matter what the impact on Oregon communities and workers.

Kerr believes he can maintain the status quo on the O&C lands through endless appeals and litigation. Unfortunately he is ignoring a recent Washington, D.C., Circuit Court decision that affirms the O&C Act of 1937 means what it says: These lands are required by law to produce sustainable timber and revenues to Oregon counties. The decision also requires substantial increases to current harvest levels. Other pending court cases could subject the O&C lands to 1980-era logging levels which would mean the liquidation of irreplaceable old growth forests.

Without legislation, the conflict between the O&C Act and modern environmental laws will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. Frankly, I don’t want this Supreme Court [a court that has shredded the VRA and made corporations citizens and money speech] dictating the management of our O&C lands and deciding the fate of our old growth.

These are the reasons why Wyden, Kitzhaber and I are working to find an Oregon solution to a unique Oregon challenge.

Wyden has been laboring for months on a solution that will meet our common objectives. Solving this problem is not easy. Wyden does chair the committee of jurisdiction and will hopefully be able to pass his proposal through the Democratically controlled Senate. This would allow us to go to conference to hammer out a compromise that fully delivers on our commitment to protect irreplaceable natural treasures and provide predictability to counties and their residents.

Unlike Kerr, I do care about unemployment in southwest Oregon. I do care about failing counties that can’t keep violent criminals in jail and sheriffs on our streets. I do care about struggling Oregon families in poverty who can barely afford to pay their bills. I am sympathetic to the 85 millworkers who lost their jobs in Cave Junction. And, I am as passionate as I was in 1986 about permanently protecting old growth and ensuring that harvests in younger stands are sustainable and protect water quality.

While I don’t have Andy Kerr’s support, I am not deterred from fighting for a balanced solution to the problems and uncertainty plaguing O&C lands.