Some may debate the impact of a federal court judge's ruling regarding the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Western Oregon Plan Revision, but few question the need to continue forest restoration pilot projects in southwest Oregon.
"The court's check on the administration's hasty elimination of WOPR is good news for rural Western Oregon and our forests," U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told the Mail Tribune on Monday.
"While the administration and Congress process this ruling, the two pilot projects should continue so at least some work is being done in our forests to make them healthier and bring jobs back to our rural communities," added Walden, whose 2nd Congressional District includes Jackson County and a portion of eastern Josephine County.
A supporter of the WOPR, which would have permitted significantly increased timber harvests on federal lands, Walden was referring to pilot projects in the BLM's Medford and Roseburg districts. Those projects include an 80,000-acre forest restoration effort in the mid-Applegate Valley.
Following the uncertainty of forest management on BLM lands after withdrawal of the WOPR by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009, the projects were proposed to Salazar last year by Jerry Franklin, a forestry professor at the University of Washington, and Oregon State University forestry professor Norm Johnson. The goal is to preserve the largest trees while improving forest health, including for northern spotted owl habitat, and producing wood for mills and reducing wildfire danger, according to Franklin and Johnson.
U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates in Washington, D.C., ruled Thursday that Salazar lacked the authority to take the 2009 action withdrawing the WOPR without first calling for public comments. Salazar had concluded that the WOPR, put into place by the Bush administration, was illegal because its implementation didn't review the potential impacts on endangered species such as the northern spotted owl.
A spokesman for the Interior Department said the agency is reviewing last week's ruling.
Joseph Vaile, conservation coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, which lobbied hard against the WOPR, agrees with Walden when it comes to the pilot projects.
"I do feel like this (court ruling) is coming at an unfortunate time," said Vaile, a member of the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative that includes timber industry representatives. "Right now, we are trying to work with scientists, the timber industry and communities to develop a way to manage our forests through the pilot projects. This is a distraction from that process.
"Clearly, if the WOPR is back on the table, that would have a chilling effect on our ability to move forward on these pilot projects — it is opposite to the approach being taken by the pilot projects."
But Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association who is also a member of the small diameter collaborative and a supporter of the pilot projects, believes both the WOPR and the pilot projects each stand alone.
"The pilot projects are pretty much independent of the WOPR," said Schott, an attorney by training. "From what I can discern, it looks like the management plan (WOPR) is back in place. I'm sure there will be an appeal. But I don't think there will be any effect on the pilot projects."
In fact, Schott has called for much larger pilot projects of more than 100,000 acres to reduce overgrown forests caused by a century of fire suppression.
"We've got to do something," he said. "It has reached the point of critical mass. We are all in support of anything we can do to make our forests healthier."
Adopted by the Bush administration in 2008 to manage the BLM's 2.1 million acres of lands in Western Oregon, the WOPR was the result of a 2003 legal settlement between the federal government and the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council. The WOPR would have allowed some 500 million board feet of timber to be sold in the region, but lawsuits and economic issues prevented the harvest from ever nearing anything close to those levels.
"We are calling on the BLM to immediately begin selling the 502 million board feet each year that the plan allows," said Bob Ragon, executive director of Douglas Timber Operators, lead plaintiff in the case, in a prepared statement. "Our mills need the wood, our citizens need the jobs, our local governments need the revenue that these sales will produce, and our forests need the active management."