Congress adjourns without progress on timber legislation


There was some momentum for this post-election “lame duck” session of Congress on timber issues. Namely, Republicans will be taking over the Senate next month, and so Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had only weeks to make his mark before he lost his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee. Wyden has been trumpeting his bill on Oregon timber reform (which would likely steer the national debate) for more than a year, and he also has a bill to change the way forest firefighting is paid for that could free up money for timber restoration.

Out of desperation, innovation, right?

Not so fast. Wyden’s bill, which would increase the harvest in some timber counties, was opposed by many timber groups and some environmentalists, and even with the added urgency, Wyden’s bill failed to get enough support before Congress adjourned for the year this week.

The Oregonian editorial board this month cited Wyden’s failed bill, as well as another Oregon timber harvest proposal from Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader:

It’s tempting to give Wyden, as well as the three Oregon congressmen who championed the House bill, credit for working hard in a difficult political environment. But there are two big problems with accepting one more failure as a necessary step toward eventual success: Rural Oregon has been waiting … and waiting … and waiting … for decades. And, the Oregon delegation will be operating with less political clout next year as Republicans test out their new power.

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, an Oregon group that advocates for active forest management and opposed the Wyden timber harvest bill, said in a letter to supporters that Congress still needs to come up with a way to increase the harvest on Oregon lands. But “that any solution must generate the timber volumes and revenues necessary to help our counties become self-sufficient again.”

More troubling is that Congress also failed to pass an extension of federal payments to timber counties, otherwise known as the Secure Rural Schools program. This could mean counties across the West see millions of dollars cut from each of their budgets for next year.

Some Republican leaders have said they will pass an extension of the timber payments early next year, but the future is still uncertain. If the timber payments end, Skamania County in Washington will be one of the hardest hit counties in the country. According to Headwaters Economics, a Montana think tank, Skamania County will lose $2.9 million from its budget next year without the federal payments, which is 8 percent of the county’s entire budget.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, supported the timber payment extension but in an op-ed this week, said the nation’s timber counties also deserve better than just the Secure Rural Schools money.

The answer to ensuring that our forested communities have the revenue they need to fund schools and road maintenance is not a continuation of the current system. What’s needed is for the Forest Service to return to a policy of actively managing our national forests through sustainable timber harvests to allow our forested communities to go back to work.

I have repeatedly pressed the U.S. Forest Service to increase the timber cut in Southeast Alaska and will continue to do so.

…I will continue to work to ensure that our forested communities are made whole. Over the coming year, though, we must also seek a better way to create healthy economies for communities that have traditionally worked our national forests. The best answer is both tried and true: a return to the active management of our national forests.