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By Michael C. Blumm and Tim Wigington
On Sept. 6, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced that in the next few weeks the U.S. House of Representatives would take action on the bill drafted by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden to significantly boost harvests from federal forestlands in western Oregon.
Environmentalists are quite worried about the effect of this bill, placing a full-page ad in The Oregonian that maintained that the bill would mark a return to widespread clear-cutting. The Clackamas and Washington County water commissions have also expressed alarm, worrying that increased timber harvests on federal lands will degrade watersheds and increase the costs of supplying municipal water.
These concerns are well-placed. The House bill would drastically change the management of most of the so-called O&C lands (Oregon and California Railroad lands, after a failed 19th-century land grant) now managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. In a devolution of authority virtually unprecedented in public land law, the bill would replace the federal BLM's management with a locally managed "timber trust" to maximize returns from timber harvesting. Placing the O&C lands in a locally managed trust would remove the protections afforded by federal environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) for about approximately 1.5 million acres of land -- an area about twice the size of Rhode Island.
Chief among these protections is the NWFP, promulgated nearly two decades ago as a response to "spotted owl" injunctions imposed by federal courts. The plan represents the foremost example of ecosystem management in the world, covering some 24 million acres of federal forests in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. It does not foreclose timber harvests, but ensures that those that occur do not damage watersheds or dependent wildlife.
A cardinal tenet of the NWFP is to manage all federal forests, whether under the jurisdiction of the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service, consistently as an integrated whole. The House bill would eviscerate this paradigm, replacing it with fragmented management in which "timber trust" lands would be managed inconsistently with surrounding federal forestlands not placed in the trust. The "trust" lands would be protected only by the Oregon Forest Practices Act, not federal law. The FPA has proved inadequate to meet state water quality standards, largely because of inadequate buffer zones, as the state's own studies clearly show.
The ostensible reason for the House bill, despite its demonstrable risks to wildlife and watersheds, is to produce revenue for local counties that share in timber revenues generated by timber sales. Outside of periods of very high timber harvests, these counties have consistently struggled to establish a diverse and consistent revenue base. But this current effort to turn the clock back to the harvest levels of the 1980s -- and its accompanying levels of wildlife and watershed degradation -- is unnecessary, and it perpetuates a timber-centric reliance that is not, and has never really been, sustainable.
There are many alternatives to shifting the cost of funding county governments onto those who depend upon healthy streams for drinking water and for their economic livelihoods. For example, Congress could authorize "ecosystem-service" fees on those benefiting from the clean water produced by healthy forests; it could also provide incentives to encourage the affected counties to raise property taxes to the state median. The state could restructure timber severance taxes to encourage local processing, discourage exports of raw logs and create local jobs. The counties could adopt local sales taxes targeted at tourism, as some Oregon municipalities have done.
Congress should adopt some combination of these alternatives before resorting to large-scale segmentation of the forest ecosystem. Moreover, because of changed demand patterns and the influx of cheap timber from around the world, a timber-centric strategy may no longer make sense as a revenue strategy, even if it once did.
Some federal timber harvests to reduce fire threats and improve forest health are unobjectionable. And it may be that forest watersheds and dependent species can be protected by buffer zones that are smaller than those called for by the current NWFP. But any such changes should be the product of scientific evaluation and be consistent with existing federal environmental laws. The current House bill contains no provisions calling for such studies, would fragment federal forest management, and give unprecedented control over a large swath of land owned by all Americans to local interests.
When the O&C bill moves to the Senate, Oregon's Sen. Ron Wyden, who has pledged to protect federal environmental laws, should fulfill that pledge by reaffirming the validity of the NWFP, eliminating the timber trust and making clear that any increased timber harvests must be consistent with that plan and protect watershed health. It would be far too costly to do otherwise.
Michael C. Blumm, Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar and professor of law, has taught public lands law at Lewis and Clark Law School for three decades. Tim Wigington is the business and legal analyst at the Freshwater Trust.