Rural communities get legal victory in Oregon timber case


Oregon has been a proving ground for a couple years now for much of the debate over federal forest management and whether all the stakeholders can come up with a solution to increase the federal timber harvest.

In Oregon, the federal timberlands are named “O&C lands” because they used to be owned by the old Oregon & California Railroad. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, last month announced his much anticipated plan to increase the O&C harvest. And Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, proposed his plan back in 2011 that is still getting support from Oregon leaders today.

But it’s not just about Oregon. If all the parties – from the timber industry to environmental groups – can agree on an increase in the Oregon timber harvest, it could lead to similar deals in other states.

This week, Oregon was once again in the spotlight, when a federal judge ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is violating its own guidelines and not selling enough timber in Southwest Oregon. The judge also threw out a computer model that the BLM was using to determine the number of spotted owls in a given area.

As the American Forest Resource Council described it, the computer model “generates virtual owls on the landscape where none actually exist. The (federal) agencies then manage around these phantom owls, which has had a major impact on timber harvest levels.”

Under the judge’s ruling, the amount of timber put up for sale in the Medford District would increase from 19 million board feet to 57 million board feet. In the Roseburg District, the sale would go from 29 million board feet to 45 million board feet. The increased timber harvest would be enough to create more than 400 logging and mill jobs, according to the AFRC.

“This case is a victory for rural Oregonians who’ve been suffering through 20 years of gridlock on our federal forests,” said Tom Partin, President of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), one of the plaintiffs in the case. “We’ve been trying for years to get the BLM to comply with the law when it adopts a resource management plan. The judge confirmed the requirements under the O&C Act are clear, and they can’t be ignored by agency officials or interest groups who might wish to sever their connection with our rural, forested communities.”

As the timber debate continues, the opinion pages of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., have become a forum for all sides to hash out the issues. Eugene is located in Lane County, which is the state’s fourth most populous county but also in a central part of the state and in timber territory. The county’s budget has been hit hard by the decline in the timber harvest and federal timber payments, and yet the local paper is large enough to run a wide array of timber-related opinion pieces.

In recent weeks, the Register-Guard has had a series of op-eds, many of them responding to each other:

  • In late May, Becky, Kathy and Jody Jones of Seneca Jones Timber Co. wrote about the plight of rural residents, continuing lawsuits from envirionmental groups and a call for an increased federal timber harvest.
  • About a week later, Susan Applegate and Patty Breuser-Keene wrote a column criticizing the timber industry.
  • Last week, Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich called on Congress to reach a solution to increase the timber harvest.
  • Last weekend, Mora Dewey Fields wrote that our federal leaders are out of touch with the majority of Oregon residents, who support a plan like DeFazio’s that would increase the harvest but also protect the environment.
  • A few days ago, timberland owner Jan Swanson wrote that the timber industry is healthy for the environment and that “nobody cares more about the health and future of our forests than the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.”
  • Along the way, The Register-Guard wrote its own editorials calling for more help for timber counties and reiterating the paper’s support for Rep. DeFazio’s plan.