Timber reform now subject to delicate negotiations in D.C.

2014-02-13 Ashley Bach

Timber and environmental leaders agree that meaningful federal timber reform in Washington, D.C., is closer than it's ever been.

Describing the situation, Nick Smith, a spokesman for Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, a pro-timber group, used a football analogy.

“It feels like we’ve taken this thing all the way down to the 5-yard line,” he said. “Now we’ve got to take it in for the score.”

But the path to real reform has taken several twists and turns in recent weeks, and seems set to take many more throughout the year.

  • Sen. Ron Wyden, whose legislation increasing the harvest on Oregon public timberlands has received the most media attention, this week left his post as chair of the Senate Energy & Natural Resouces Committee. Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is taking an even more powerful post as chair of the Senate Finance Committee. But he likely won't have as much influence on timber issues. Many timber leaders are opposed to Wyden's legislation, but at the very least, he has been committed to reaching a solution. 
  • Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Lousiana, just took over for Wyden as head of the Senate's key environmental committee. Landrieu is considered friendly to industry, much more than Wyden, but she's not from a state with significant timber issues. Her priority seems to be on improving the lot of oil, gas and coal companies, not necessarily the timber industry, whose power base is on the West Coast.
  • Rep. Doc Hastings, the head of the House Natural Resources Committee, announced today that he is retiring at the end of the year after 10 terms in office. The House is controlled by Republicans so it was always going to be a bit easier to get timber reform passed there, but like Wyden, Hastings is from the Northwest and so timber issues are one of his priorities. The Republican from Pasco, Wash., has his own timber reform legislation, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which has attracted a lot of timber industry support. His impending retirement could lessen his influence, or perhaps timber reform will be one of his lasting legacies before he leaves office. 

Wyden has attracted some supporters in the timber and environmental camps for his legislation, but many groups from both camps have also lined up against it. Nonetheless, Wyden stood strong in a hearing on the bill last week.

"We ought to say this is going to get done this year," the Democratic senator said in a hearing on his legislation aimed at boosting timber harvests on more than 2 million acres of federal land in western Oregon.

"We're never going to have a better opportunity," he added. "This has been the longest running battle practically since the Trojan War."

One of the main issues is that unlike Hastings' bill, Wyden's legislation only covers timberland in Oregon. There has already been talk that Wyden's bill could be tacked on to a larger piece of federal lands legislation.

Healthy Forests Healthy Communities’ Smith said lawmakers from several other states, including Wyoming and Montana, also are sponsoring bills that would create “more active” management of federal forests and other natural resources. That legislation as well as Wyden’s new, separate timber management proposal for Eastern Oregon — which was voted through to the full Senate in December — all could be part of the public lands package, he added.

“There seems to clearly be an appetite for more forest management in this Congress,” Smith said.

...Asked about the possibility of making an (Oregon timber) bill a rider on another piece of legislation, Keith Chu, Wyden’s spokesman, didn’t rule it out.

“Senator Wyden is going to be creative to get his bill through,” Chu said. “This is his top natural resources priority.”

Even environmental groups agree that a timber reform bill affecting just Oregon may not be broad enough.

“We tend to think that the Oregon (logging) debate is at the center of all of this, and it’s not,” said Steve Pedery, the conservation director with Oregon Wild. “Any big public lands bill that passes the (Republican-controlled) House will contain some significant movement towards the privatization of public lands and their resources. ...

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who sponsored separate legislation increasing the Oregon timber harvest, said a deal will have to be struck.

“I hope (the Senate energy committee) would move (Wyden's) bill out,” DeFazio said. “Then, that puts us in a position to begin negotiating. This bill isn’t going to pass the Senate as an individual, free-standing bill. It’s a one-state bill. The Senate’s pretty dysfunctional.”

He said the bill could be part of a larger “land package” later in the year.

“But, if he moves the bill out of committee, then we can begin to discuss what changes could be made to be put into a larger land package,” DeFazio said.

That package could include federal land protections, creating more national monuments, creating more wilderness areas, more active management on federal forest lands and creating more “wild and scenic” rivers.