There was some momentum for this post-election "lame duck" session of Congress on timber issues. Namely, Republicans will be taking over the Senate next month, and so Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had only weeks to make his mark before he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden has been trumpeting his bill on Oregon timber reform (which would likely steer the national debate) for more than a year, and he also has a bill to change the way forest firefighting is paid for that could free up money for timber restoration.
Out of desperation, innovation, right?
Not so fast. Wyden's bill, which would increase the harvest in some timber counties, was opposed by many timber groups and some environmentalists, and even with the added urgency, Wyden's bill failed to get enough support before Congress adjourned for the year this week.
The Oregonian editorial board this month cited Wyden's failed bill, as well as another Oregon timber harvest proposal from Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader:
It's tempting to give Wyden, as well as the three Oregon congressmen who championed the House bill, credit for working hard in a difficult political environment. But there are two big problems with accepting one more failure as a necessary step toward eventual success: Rural Oregon has been waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting ... for decades. And, the Oregon delegation will be operating with less political clout next year as Republicans test out their new power.
The aging of the nation's small forest landowners is an industry truth that's inescapable. We wrote last year about several efforts to attract younger folks to forestry and a program from the Pinchot Institute for Conservation to help older forest landowners pay their medical bills in exchange for carbon credits.
This week the Associated Press tackled the issue with a story that looks at the problem through the eyes of forest owners in Vermont, but also with an eye on an innovative program out of Oregon State University.
Brett Butler, the coordinator of the U.S. Forest Service's National Woodland Survey, says there's a common misconception that the majority of forest land is owned by the government. Nationally, more than half of the 766 million acres of forest land is owned privately by proprietors whose average age is 62.5.
"It's really families and individuals that control the fate and the future of the forests," Butler said.
One of the biggest issues isn't necessarily aging forest owners selling their land all at once but their having no way to pass it on their children and selling the land in pieces.
The concerns of forestry professionals are more subtle than the typical worries over large-scale development: as the parcels of land get smaller the people who own them might not have the same commitment to the forests as the previous landowners.
"Our alarm bells are starting to go off, not because landowners are suddenly older, but because it's been going on long enough now that we are really beginning to see the impacts," said Mary Sisock, an assistant professor of extension forestry at the University of Vermont, who has worked on the issue across the country.
Owners of smaller parcels are less likely to invest in forestry management plans, and managing for wildlife is more difficult than on larger plots, Sisock said. And once the land gets cut up it's more likely it will be developed, and once developed there's no chance it will ever again be a working forest, she said.