Wyden's committee move could imperil Northwest timber reform

2013-12-24 Ashley Bach

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is an ace up the sleeve for timber issues in the Northwest. The Oregon Democrat took over as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January 2013, and since then, he's championed timber reform.

His proposal to increase the timber harvest in Oregon, released last month, may not be receiving widespread support from the timber industry, but at least it's bringing the economic problems of our country's rural communities into the spotlight. As The Oregonian recently editorialized, Wyden's proposal may also be a reflection of the political reality, with a Democrat-controlled Senate and Democratic president.

There are limitations to what any Congress might produce on this issue. The (timber) cut is never going back to the billion-board-foot boom times of the late '70s. Even if it somehow did, with all the mechanization of the past decades, that would not recreate the historic levels of jobs. For the (timber) counties, whatever comes out of this process – if anything comes out of this process – won't be a full solution, but only part of a pathway to one.

Just this week, a separate proposal from Wyden to increase the timber harvest in Eastern Oregon passed out of his committee, and the senator also introduced a third piece of legislation that would change the way fighting wildfires is funded.

But could timber's stint at the top of the federal food chain be nearing its end? President Obama's decision to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to be Ambassador to China is causing a series of musical chairs that will result in Sen. Wyden leaving his chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to become chairman of the even more powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Wyden's move may help Oregon's overall political clout in Washington, D.C., but it hurts the likelihood of timber reform staying at the forefront of Congress' priorities. In fact, Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes said in a recent podcast that Wyden's flurry of timber bills in recent weeks shows that the senator sees "a window of opportunity" to get timber legislation passed.

Even before Obama's decision, Wyden was set to leave his chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee next year. But Obama's move means that Wyden will leave the Natural Resources chairmanship months earlier than planned.

Wyden's likely replacement as Natural Resources chair is Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Lousiana who cares much more about advocating for oil drilling than timber issues.

The Eugene Register-Guard this week wrote that all the parties involved - from timber interests to environmental groups - should work quickly to get a timber reform proposal approved because the timeline is suddenly much more rushed. Wyden's proposal for Western Oregon covers only federal forests called "O&C land" because they used to be owned by the Oregon & California Railroad. His plan for Western Oregon is critical for timber interests around the country because if successful, it could be the model for other states.

From the Register-Guard editorial:

All this means that Oregon’s congressional delegation must move quickly and that environmentalists, the timber industry, the O&C counties and other interested parties need to work together, make concessions and get the job done soon.

The once-in-a-lifetime alignment of Oregon lawmakers in key positions will not last long, and it may not occur in again for decades. Sooner or later — and it increasingly looks like sooner — the window of opportunity will close, and Oregonians should hope the O&C forest management bill has passed through it before it does.