It’s been heartening to see support recently from Northwest elected officials for revitalizing rural economies and rebuilding the timber industry after environmental lawsuits and the spotted owl. As we wrote about in September, one of the most pressing issues is the loss of federal payments to timber-dependent counties in Oregon and Washington. Some county governments, like Skamania County in Southwest Washington, are in so much danger that they may have to cut their budgets in half or shut down completely.
Just this week the Lane County Board of Commissioners in Eugene, Ore., voted to support U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s plan “to increase logging on 2.2 million acres of federal Bureau of Land Management forests…(by) splitting the land into environmental and timber trusts.” DeFazio’s plan is similar, at least broadly, to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s suggestion last week that state forests be permanently split up into land set aside for conservation and land for timber harvest.
Large-scale reform of federal and state timber policy is necessary because the last couple decades of policies have failed to bring Northwest rural communities back to life, said Faye Stewart, chairman of the Lane County Board of Commissioners.
Stewart, whose family ran the former Eugene-based lumber company Bohemia Inc., said during the meeting that the harvest of timber on private lands has never expanded to make up for the cut on public land that was curbed following the enforcement of environmental laws.
“We’ve just done without,” Stewart said. “The consequences of doing without is our communities drying up and withering away. There’s no jobs and infrastructure is disappearing.”
As logging on Oregon’s federal lands diminished two decades ago, the federal government shifted to the so-called timber payments program, and away from paying counties a share of logging revenues.
But the direct cash payments to counties have not saved communities or local governments, Stewart said.
In another issue that has received wide support from Northwest elected officials, a coalition of business and political leaders continues to try to overturn a Ninth Circuit Court decision on stormwater runoff from logging roads. (We wrote about the court decision here.)
In an op-ed this week in the Bellingham Herald, Chris Lipton, general manager for Washington Timberlands at Longview Timber Corp and Gregory A. Pallesen, vice president and political director of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, write that the Ninth Circuit decision wouldn’t just hurt rural communities or the timber industry — it could hurt the environment.
The truth is that it is quite likely that this court decision could result in fewer forests. Forest owners depend on a reasonable economic return to make their holdings affordable to manage and economically competitive with other land uses. If that delicate balance is threatened, as this ruling promises to do, many small forest owners will be forced to sell their land for development. Larger forest owners will be pushed to the brink as well. That hardly seems like a good outcome.