Opposition increases against Sen. Wyden’s timber bill


In May 2013, it seemed like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was the great hope for federal timber reform. He had just taken over as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, putting him in prime position to finally get the Northwest timber harvest kickstarted after decades of meager activity.

Wyden’s proposal, finally announced in November 2013, only covered Oregon timber counties in the former Oregon & California (O&C) Railroad Co. lands. Timber owners in Washington and other timber states would have to wait.

Meanwhile, Oregon timber companies and rural counties actually preferred another bill that would have increased the Oregon harvest. That bill, from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, was folded into a plan from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would increase the timber harvest around the country. Hastings’ bill was actually passed by the House but at last check, it’s stalled in the Senate.

That left Wyden’s proposal, coupled with Wyden’s prime leadership position, as a possible way forward. Timber companies and rural counties opposed his bill, but it seemed like it could be a starting-off point for negotiations, with perhaps some elements of DeFazio or Hastings’ bills added on to reach a compromise that both timber leaders and environmental groups could at least stomach, if not support.

Now that kind of compromise feels more distant. Earlier this year, Wyden lost his leadership post in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He’s now the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and is trying to push through an altered version of his Oregon timber legislation through the new committee.

The heart of the bill is still the same, but Wyden seems to be facing tougher opposition this time around. Environmental groups are still opposed because they say it increases the federal timber harvest too much, and they feel like Wyden is trying to do an end-around by pushing the bill through a committee that doesn’t have anything to do with natural resources.

Chandra LeGue, a field coordinator for environmental group Oregon Wild, says that she’s concerned about the bill being shifted from the natural resources to the finance committee.

“It seems a little unfair. This bill belongs in the (natural resources) committee. That’s where lawmakers are knowledgeable about these issues,” she said. “The question is ‘Are we just trying to sneak this through?’ This will have major impacts in Western Oregon.”

But the strongest opposition, by far, is coming from rural counties and timber leaders, who are coming on stronger than they did against Wyden’s original legislation.

The rural counties, represented by the Association of O&C Counties, say Wyden’s bill “has many inconsistencies, conflicting provisions, undefined terms and ambiguities. It would be a litigation bonanza” and it doesn’t adequately define how much timber would be harvested or revenue would be generated.

That caused Wyden to snap back:

“Extreme lobbying groups say that our bill is too complicated and may not accomplish everything we set out to do,” he wrote in an email to the Pilot. “I say I’d rather work to improve the situation rather than settle for the status quo.”

Being labeled as “extreme” didn’t sit well with rural counties or logging leaders. The American Forest Resource Council, Associated Oregon Loggers and Douglas Timber Operators told Wyden that “this type of rhetoric is unfortunate, especially coming from a senior U.S. Senator representing us as Oregonians and the many Oregonians employed in the forestry sector.”

“Make no mistake Senator, if signed into law, the current version of your O&C legislation would directly threaten Western Oregon’s remaining mills, logging infrastructure and secondary wood products manufacturers, not to mention many family wage jobs and small businesses that depend on Western Oregon’s forestry sector. Not only would it reduce harvests on BLM lands, but also impact the management of private forestland and make them more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire. We are unaware of a single Oregon forest products company that supports the legislation.”

The Oregonian editorial board says both environmental groups and timber leaders should ease up and allow Wyden room to get a compromise bill passed. But the paper also says that timber leaders and rural counties have legitimate concerns that should be addressed.

First, everyone needs to banish the word “certainty” from their vocabularies. The timber industry and O&C counties crave certainty, or at least “predictability,” in three areas: the level of timber harvests, the amount of money flowing into county coffers and the legal environment for harvests. Environmental groups want to be certain streams, old-growth trees and ecosystems in general are protected.

While true certainty is unlikely to ever exist for harvest levels and revenue streams, much less lawsuit avoidance, the industry and counties felt much more comfortable with the House bill sponsored by DeFazio, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. Wyden should continue to work with DeFazio to at least provide more assurance that his plan will facilitate increased harvests long-term, not just over the next decade or so – even if harvest levels don’t meet the industry goal of 500 million board feet annually. He also should address concerns that the Senate bill would provide relatively little help for some of the O&C counties – particularly ones in southern Oregon.

Second, though time is a legitimate constraint, Wyden’s office should seek ways to honor requests for an independent review of the plan. Even if the legislation remains largely the same after the review, it would benefit everyone to have as clear a view as possible of what the bill’s impact would be.

It remains to be seen whether such a compromise is possible.