Can the states lead the charge on federal timber reform?


There is no shortage of innovation about how to better manage our federal forestland, to increase the timber harvest and boost rural communities while still protecting the environment. The trick, though, is that even if one environmental group opposes a plan, it’s difficult to pass timber reform through Congress.

This is doubly frustrating because across the West, plans to increase the timber harvest have bipartisan support at the local, state and federal level. A bill sponsored by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader (both Democrats) and Greg Walden (a Republican) has stalled in Congress because of opposition from environmental groups.

A similar bill from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., has support in the Republican-controlled House but is running into problems in the Senate and from President Obama, according to the newspaper, Human Events.

Capitol Hill sources say the language most likely to move forward was originally authored last year by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill was passed out of committee, but not by the full House.

It would create a county schools and revenue trust to provide a dependable source of revenue by splitting revenues from certain Forest Service projects—65 percent staying local and 35 percent returning to the federal Treasury. Those projects include timber sales, grazing permits or other revenue from permits involving recreation and minerals.

“The status quo of receiving declining and uncertain federal payments is simply not acceptable,” Hastings told his committee last year. “This will provide a stable revenue stream for counties and schools, create new jobs, strengthen rural economies, promote healthier forests, reduce the risk of wildfires, and decrease our reliance on foreign countries for timber and paper goods.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, recognizes the bottleneck at the federal level. Kitzhaber last year created a coalition of stakeholders from the timber industry, local government and environmental groups to figure out ways to better manage the state’s federal timberland. Just this week, Kitzhaber urged a separate body, the Oregon Board of Forestry, to support reform.

“The status quo is not working,” Kitzhaber said. “It is not working from a management standpoint. It is not working from a political standpoint. And the sooner we can change that, the better off Oregon is going to be.”

While the board doesn’t have authority over federal forests, Kitzhaber said he believes it can play a lead role “in moving us beyond the status quo.”

“I don’t think, from the recent track record, we can expect a quick fix out of the United States Congress,” he said. “That’s not going to change out of the Beltway. But I believe we can lead that discussion, and I think we can change that conversation, change that dynamic.”

Can the Western states lead the way on reform of our federal timber management? It remains to be seen, but at least our states are recognizing that lobbying our federal officials on the issue in the traditional fashion no longer works.

Until real reform is adopted, the management of our federal forestland will continue to be one step forward, like this thinning proposal just announced in Central Washington, and one step back, like this lawsuit by environmental groups over a timber sale in Southern Oregon.