Sen. Ron Wyden unveils much-anticipated timber harvest plan

2013-11-27 Ashley Bach

After more than a year of anticipation, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., this week unveiled his plan to increase the federal timber harvest. His plan comes two months after the U.S. House approved a sweeping timber reform bill, sponsored by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., called the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act.

As expected, Wyden's bill does not increase the harvest as much or do nearly as much for timber communities as Hastings' bill. Also as expected, Wyden's bill covers only federal forests in Western Oregon, forests called "O&C land" because they used to be owned by the Oregon & California Railroad. Other states will have to wait. Hastings' bill, meanwhile, includes not only a more aggressive harvest plan for the O&C land (a plan led by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.) but also a national increase in the federal harvest.

It's not surprising that both timber leaders and environmental groups have come out against Wyden's plan, though it remains to be seen whether the opposition will be fatal. And there are a small number of timber leaders and environmental groups that support Wyden's plan.

Here's the reaction from a coalition of timber groups in Oregon:

“At first glance, it appears that Senator Wyden’s proposal falls short of providing our communities the level of legal certainty, jobs, and county revenues they deserve and have been promised,” said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council in a statement released jointly by a coalition that also included the Associated Oregon Loggers and Douglas Timber Operators.

Other timber and rural leaders weighed in:

The Association of O&C Counties, which represents 18 Oregon counties that have these forests, said it would carefully review Wyden's proposal but in the meantime remained "steadfastly supportive" of the House measure.

Nick Smith of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a pro-timber group, said the Wyden bill "falls short" of what the House bill offers.

In particular, he said he was concerned that the southernmost counties of Oregon – which have been hit the hardest by declining timber harvests – would not see much additional logging on the federal lands under Wyden's approach.

Most media noted that Wyden is trying to navigate the middle ground between timber and rural leaders on one side and environmental groups on the other. Wyden himself, as well as his small number of supporters from the timber and environmental sides, say his bill is the only politically viable option, since President Obama has vowed to veto Hastings' bill and the House bill also wouldn't pass the Democrat-controlled Senate.

In the end, Wyden rewrote some lines from the Rolling Stones hit, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," to explain his approach to the state's tough natural resource issues.

"Nobody gets what they want," he said. "Nobody gets everything they believe they deserve. The question is, can we get what Oregon needs?"

Regardless of the merits of Wyden's bill, there are now two competing timber reform measures before Congress. The House and the Senate will have to compromise, a commodity not easily found in D.C. these days.

Rep. DeFazio, one of the leaders behind the O&C plan in Hastings' House bill, told the Oregonian he thinks there could be enough common ground to reconcile the House and Senate plans for Western Oregon forests.

The Eugene Register-Guard editorial board said federal lawmakers should act quickly:

The opportunity for a compromise will fade soon. Wyden is chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over public lands. After next year Wyden is expected to become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, presuming Democrats retain control of the Senate. DeFazio is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The committee is currently chaired by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who has an understanding of the O&C lands’ unique history that a successor is likely to lack.

According to The Oregonian editorial board, all sides of the issue should sacrifice:

Certainly, aspects of both bills raise legitimate questions. Would the House bill grant the state too much control over federal land and set a regrettable precedent? Are Wyden's proposals for limiting the times and circumstances for appeals achievable? Will ecological forestry, an emerging science practiced on test plots in Oregon, produce the habitat projected by (forestry professors Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson)? Will Wyden's plan produce enough timber to slow the economic bleeding in Oregon's timber counties?

No one really can answer all those questions. Despite collapsed bridges of the past, the conservation community and those striving to help economically distressed timber counties must trust each other and the system enough to make needed adjustments along the way. The alternative would be to create economic sacrifice zones that would be uglier than a clear-cut.