Environmental groups warn OR governor: Don't increase timber harvest on federal lands

Jan 25, 2013

In a clear warning to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Northwest timber industry, several environmental groups have sent a letter stating that attempts to negotiate an increased timber harvest on public lands in western Oregon could result in more regulation—and less logging—on privately-owned forests.

The letter is a response to recent efforts by Kitzhaber to develop legislation that would throw a lifeline to financially foundering western Oregon counties by allowing more logging on Bureau of Land Management-managed Oregon and California Railroad (O&C) trust lands while prioritizing conservation of natural resources.

Proposals for legislation would be conveyed to Washington, D.C., by Oregon’s congressional delegation.

Dated Jan. 11, the environmentalists’ letter was sent to the governor’s office, timber industry or ganizations, and over 40 private forest owners throughout the Northwest. The environmental groups warned Kitzhaber that if timber harvests increase on federally owned O&C lands in Oregon, “conservation requirements for private and state lands in the Northwest region will need to be revisited and increased.”

The environmentalists claimed the Northwest Forest Plan, which was implemented in 1994 to protect critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, would legally require a tradeoff—less private logging for more public lands logging—to satisfy federal obligations to protect the spotted owl, marbled murrelets, coho salmon, and other sensitive species.

“If federal conservation contributions are reduced, private and state landowners would be legally required to increase their efforts,” stated the letter, which was signed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Wild, Earthjustice and several others.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resources Council, called the letter an attempt to polarize the forest products industry between timber companies that depend on federal lands and timber companies that own their own forests.

“I think it’s absolutely a threat that they’ll litigate on private land if we have a new approach on the O&C,” said Partin.

Private land owners within the scope of the Northwest Forest Plan are currently able to harvest timber with only moderate restrictions by operating under Habitat Conservation Plans or Safe Harbor Agreements that allow for “incidental take” of threatened or endangered species. By contrast, logging on federal lands has decreased by 80 percent over the past 18 years due to strict regulations imposed by the Northwest Forest Plan. In their letter, the environmentalists claimed private landowners’ relative freedom to cut timber relies on the minimal timber harvesting on federal ground. They also suggested that large landowners would suffer economically if Kitzhaber’s attempt to broker a deal to harvest more timber on O&C lands goes forward.

“We also believe that state and private logging interests, from large operations like Weyerhaeuser to small individual landowners (not to mention logging operations on the Elliot, Tillamook, Clatsop and Santiam state forests), do not desire a return to regulatory uncertainty,” the letter stated.

Partin was not convinced that the environmentalists would be able to make good on their threat to seek new restrictions on private forests, claiming that private landowners are already doing their bit to conserve sensitive species. “Oregon private lands are working under the best forest practices act in the nation,” said Partin, adding that the Oregon Forest Practices Act provides for water quality, protection of endangered species, and replanting.

In October, Kitzhaber convened a 14-member panel of county commissioners, conservation leaders, and timber industry representatives to hammer out a proposal that would provide cash-strapped counties with revenue stability from logging receipts, create local jobs in the timber industry, and benefit the environment. Kitzhaber’s move to generate some consensus on the problem follows an attempt by Oregon Congressmen Peter De Fazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader last year to pass bipartisan legislation that would have transferred management of some O&C forest lands to the state. The bill failed to make progress in Congress.

Heavily dependent on revenue from timber harvesting on federal lands, western Oregon counties have had to rely on federal subsidies to bankroll rural schools and road maintenance since the Northwest Forest Plan imposed drastic reductions in timber harvest. Since 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act has been in place to make up the difference between shrunken timber revenue and the financial needs of rural school districts. But with the recession whittling away at federal budgets, the subsidy to Oregon counties is now only 42 percent of what it was in 2000, said Partin. According to Partin, the counties are “starting to get starved out.”

Kitzhaber’s panel was convened to look for ways to increase timber harvest in the stricken O&C counties while ensuring that habitats, wildlife and water are well taken care of. And while representatives from six conservation organizations sit on Kitzhaber’s panel, some environmental groups which were not selected remain unhappy with the arrangement.

“Governor Kitzhaber is negotiating allegedly a winwin situation largely in secret,” said Susan Jane Brown, staff attorney for Western Environmental Law Center and one of the letter’s signatories. “The conservation organizations that are at the table are not the ones that typically deal [with] public forest management issues. There’s concern that those that are real players on this issue are not at the table.”

Brett Brownscombe, natural resource policy advisor to Kitzhaber, downplayed the complaint. “The people who are at the table are solid representatives of the interests that they represent,” said Brownscombe, adding that it was necessary to balance representation on the panel. “If you increase the seats that are on one side of the table, then the other side’s going to want to see the seats increase on their side.”

Brown was non-committal when asked if the missive warned of impending litigation from environmental groups. “I really couldn’t say,” said Brown. However, Brown did suggest that Kitzhaber’s efforts to strike a compromise would be illfated. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that what the governor is currently doing with the O&C lands is going to have much lasting livability given the way it’s been undertaken,” she cautioned.

By contrast, Partin welcomed the panel’s efforts to find a middle ground. Reduced logging has increased biomass on the landscape and increased fire hazard, said Partin. “It hasn’t made our forests more healthy; in fact, it’s made them less healthy.”

“I think they’re starting to realize that simply setting land aside isn’t working,” added Partin. “All we end up with is a charred landscape. So I applaud them for trying to find a new path forward. I think it’s long overdue.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent, andyrieber.com