Jared Kennedy | 12.03.2013

This is a reprint of an article recently posted on OutdoorProject.org. To read the original article, click here.

I borrowed the title of this article from a recent ad campaign put together by Oregon Wild in partnership with the Portland Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and the Center for Biological Diversity. This article is an attempt to build public awareness of the sweeping changes impacting 2.1 million acres of federally managed forests in Western Oregon. These forests, called the O&C lands, are managed by the Department of the Interior under the aegis of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

On November 26, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced his sponsorship of a bill that attempts to create a balance between conservation and timber harvests on these lands. As the acting chairperson of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Wyden carries considerable clout. The bill is a response to House Bill 1526 introduced by three Oregon Congressmen, Peter DeFazio (D), Kurt Schrader (D) and Greg Walden (R), which was passed in September. The House Bill transferred approximately 1 million acres of the O&C lands into a state-owned trust that would open the door for increased logging without federal oversight. Based on the transfer of land and removal of environmental protections, President Obama threatened to veto the bill if it passed in the Senate. Like the House Bill, Wyden’s Senate Bill also increases allowable timber harvests but doesn’t include the provisions to transfer federal land to state control.

The debate on allowable timber harvests on O&C lands affects nearly every Oregonian. It is very important for those of us who spend our weekends and vacations exploring the state in search of natural beauty, old-growth forests, and quiet places to camp. When we hike or drive through the many clearcut sections of forest lining the sides of the Willamette Valley, the Cascade Range and the Coastal Range, we are visibly reminded of another Oregon legacy, the past reliance on timber harvesting to fuel the state’s economy. At OutdoorProject.org, we have been watching the debate surrounding these forest lands develop for the past six months. If you enjoy exploring the outdoors in Oregon, it’s a debate worth understanding and weighing in on. We encourage you to share your views with our elected politicians, who ultimately have the final say on how our public lands are managed.

What are the O&C Lands?

The O&C lands were named for the Oregon & California Railroad, the entity that owned them prior to their transfer to federal stewardship by the BLM. The history of the O&C lands goes back to 1866 when they were first created by a Congressional land grant to build a railroad line from Portland to San Francisco. In a complex story involving graft and scandal, Southern Pacific finally finished the railroad in 1888. Part of the grant required Southern Pacific to sell of a large portion of the lands to settlers in 160 acre tracts or risk forfeiting the land. It was a requirement that the railroad could not meet. In 1916, after many court cases, Congress returned all of the unsold land to the ownership of the federal government. It took yet another 21 years before the federal government could define how those lands should be used.

The O&C lands, largely in checkerboard-like parcels, cover a large swath of Western Oregon. With the passage of the O&C Lands Act of 1937, these lands were slated for permanent forest production and timber harvesting. However, the Act included the additional requirements that management of timber on these lands be done in accordance with “the principle of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries.”

The Act also stipulated that 50% of all revenue generated by harvesting timber on O&C lands would be shared with the 18 counties in which the lands are located. Not surprisingly, 75 years after the passage of the Act, we are still entrenched in debate about how to balance the competing interests of harvesting resources versus conserving these lands.

For more information on the legal history of the O&C lands, see an article in July’s Oregon State Bar Bulletin that provides additional background on what led to drafting and passage of the House Bill mentioned in this article.

Can we finally have our cake and eat it too?

The O&C Land Grant Act of 2013, as currently proposed by Senator Wyden with the support of Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, is an attempt to divide the O&C lands into distinct areas where some sections are easier to harvest and others are set aside for conservation emphasis.

Its ultimate goal is to give environmental groups concessions while providing more cash from timber harvests to struggling rural counties by removing certain logging restrictions on nearly 1 million acres of land. Essentially, the plan is to divide the O&C lands down the middle, one half for conservation, the other half for easier logging, in an attempt to establish the required balance of allowing for additional timber harvests while maintaining the requisite environmental protections. On the map above, the green sections are slated for increased logging, and the yellow areas are targeted for conservation.

The changes to the logging restrictions on the increased harvest portion are sweeping. The plan calls for using Ecological Logging Practices, following recommendations established by Oregon State University Forestry Professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin. According to an article by OPB’s Earthfix, approximately one third of the trees in an area being logged would be left standing under these new rules, and buffer zones of would be established of at least 300 feet around lakes and wetlands, 150 feet around fish streams, and 75 feet around other streams. Stands of trees more than 120 years old and individual trees over 150 years old would be left standing. Along with these revised standards, the bill removes the ability of environmental groups to challenge individual timber harvests by instead allowing the BLM to prepare two environmental impact statements to cover all management and logging for a 10-year period, a move that would allow timber harvests to sidestep some of the provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

On the conservation side, the Bill would expand the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. New national recreation areas on the Rogue and Molalla rivers would be created, including protections on 165 miles of these rivers that extend to river tributaries. The bill would also return approximately 30,000 acres of forest currently in the O&C lands to the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe and the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.

Reading between the lines

The Bill’s provisions appear to offer benefits for everyone – more logging in Western Oregon forests that will be done ecologically and bolsters some of the areas struggling the hardest in the state. However, as you might expect, appearances can be deceiving and fall short of expectations.

It’s important to remember that the intended purpose of the Wyden Bill, and the House Bill already passed in September, is to bolster the finances for some hard-up counties. As has generally been the case for Oregon’s rural areas, one of the only ways to do this is to temporarily increase timber harvests. But, as we also know, there is little ability to create a permanent solution to the challenges these economies continue to face. The traditional timber economy of Oregon resulted in unsustainable logging. Ecological logging may sound like a sustainable solution, but as Oregon Wild explains, it is actually a euphemism to make clearcutting sound palatable. It would result in a transition away from the Northwest Forest Plan’s emphasis on restoring forest habitats by allowing for more extensive logging on forest stands already over 80 years old.

For the past century we have been debating on how to balance the need for logging to support rural economies with the need for preservation of our forests. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, a sweeping bill that has created 757 wilderness areas comprising more than 100 million acres of land. When Americans head outside for outdoor adventures, it’s often in an area protected by the Wilderness Act.

While we were setting aside huge areas lands for protection, the traditional timber economy of Oregon was in a state of decline. According to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, from 1989 to 2001, due to the combination of restrictions imposed by the Northwest Forest Plan and over-cutting, timber harvests in the state dropped from over 4 billion board feet per year to less than 200 million. The resulting increase in unemployment in timber-dependent areas was huge, and the transition from a timber-based economy to something else is a long one. These numbers bear out an important fact. Increasing timber sales by 100-200 million additional board feet per year, the result of Wyden’s O&C lands legislation, would do little to make a permanent impact on helping these areas continue to transition away from their timber-based past. It will provide a short term financial solution, but it comes with long term impacts on how Oregon’s forest habitats are managed.

Are there other alternatives?

Environmental groups, supported by forest research and sustainable forestry standards, spend considerable effort pointing out that there are ways of harvesting timber that can have a beneficial, restorative impact. As stated by Oregon Wild, “previously managed forest stands need restoration,” and “mature and old-growth forests need conservation.” Restoration thinning on previously-logged forests can produce a healthier forest while reducing the risk of devastating forest fires and producing revenue from timber harvests. Many examples of well managed thinned forests, even on Forest Service and BLM lands, should serve as our guides as to how to better manage the O&C lands.

As more forests are transitioned to sustainable harvest practices, eventually it will result in a stable basis allowing for limited resource extraction, restorative forest logging, and protection of old-growth areas. It will also reduce the size of wildfires and provide some carbon sequestration. It is a process that will take much longer than a political cycle or a budget challenge, but it’s the right direction to take if we are serious about solving the ongoing debate of whether our forests are best for cutting or keeping. Unfortunately, as long as the debate is less about how to create a lasting legacy of healthy forests and restore those areas already impacted by over-logging, and more focused on how to fill temporary gaps in rural county finances, everyone who loves these forests or makes a livelihood from them will continue to suffer.

If you would like to add your voice to this issue, visit Oregon Wild for resources on how to take action.

This article was written by Jared Kennedy, Co-Founder and COO of Outdoor Project and Director of OutdoorProject.org.

Resources used for this article: Oregon Wild – www.oregonwild.org, Earthfix (OPB) – earthfix.opb.org, U.S. Department of the Interior – www.blm.org, Oregon State Bar – www.osbar.org, and Wikipedia – en.wikipedia.org.


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