Doug Breidenthal's often-repeated statement in campaign talks that the Endangered Species Act allows the logging of 20 percent of federal forests impacted by the act is just plain wrong, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"No, that is not accurate," said Joan Jewett, spokeswoman for the service, which is the agency in charge of implementing the Endangered Species Act. "There is nothing in the ESA that says a blanket 20 percent of national forest can be logged."
Breidenthal's campaign for Jackson County commissioner has focused in part on the need for the county to exert more control over federal forestlands to increase timber harvests. He has said on numerous occasions that the Endangered Species Act authorizes harvesting 20 percent of the timber in areas that have been declared protected habitat for protected species.
"That's what I understand of it," Breidenthal has said.
Breidenthal, a Republican, is running against Democrat Jeff Scroggin to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Commissioner C.W. Smith. Breidenthal and Scroggin have disagreed in numerous venues over the course the county should take in trying to bolster timber harvests, with Scroggin calling for continued collaboration among county, state and federal agencies.
In addition to the comments on the Endangered Species Act, Breidenthal has said Jackson County should follow the lead of Apache County, Ariz., in taking "jurisdiction" over federal forestlands. But federal officials say while the U.S. Forest Service is working with Apache County on thinning projects, those lands remain under the control of the U.S. government.
Breidenthal previously has said he could point out the section of the Endangered Species Act that speaks to the 20 percent allowable harvest. But he had not provided it by Wednesday, although the Mail Tribune requested it on Monday. Breidenthal said he was busy with his campaign and it would take time to find the paragraph in a document that he described as 400 to 450 pages in length.
The Endangered Species Act actually is 45 pages long.
Breidenthal would not answer questions on the topic this week, saying he would respond only by email. On Wednesday afternoon, he sent an email asked that the following written statement be printed in its entirety to avoid being misquoted:
"The Northwest forest management plan provides for a category called matrix lands set aside for multiple uses including timber harvesting. It is my understanding there was to be an 80/20 split on endangered species lands. It is also my understanding only about 2 percent of the estimated 20 percent is actually being harvested. The County is obligated and has legal standing to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. The county's financial welfare is the welfare of its citizens."
Jewett, the spokeswoman for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency must work its way through extensive reviews and management plans before any logging operation begins, and is very familiar with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
"There is nothing in the ESA (Endangered Species Act) that says a blanket 20 percent of national forests can be logged, regardless," she said. She said she confirmed that fact with others in the department, to ensure that her statement was correct.
Breidenthal also has touted Apache County, Ariz., as an example that Jackson County should follow in taking control of federal forestlands for thinning and timber management projects.
"In Apache County, Ariz., state sovereignty gives the county jurisdiction over federal lands," Breidenthal said in an October meeting with the editorial board of the Mail Tribune. Breidenthal also has made similar statements on the campaign trail.
But the U.S. Forest Service confirmed this week that it still manages the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Apache County, which was hard hit by a disastrous fire in 2011.
"There has been some local talk about the county and state playing a bigger role in the management of the forests," said Adrian Ragan, spokeswoman for the Forest Service and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. "After the Wallow Fire, we have made a greater effort to work with Apache County on forest management."
Local officials did send the U.S. Congress resolutions that suggested they would assert local control over the forests. The resolutions, stemming from local frustration over forest management and wildfires, prompted a stewardship program that so far has thinned 57 acres of steep hillside next to Greer, Ariz.
Another 96,000 acres of forest is now under environmental review for additional thinning, according to Doyel Shamley, owner of Veritas Research Consulting, a company that works on natural resource issues and helped local officials draft resolutions for Apache County that were sent to Washington officials. On its website, Veritas is described as a "Specialist in applying the Constitution to Inter-Governmental Coordination, Jurisdiction, Delegation of Authority, Land Use and Agency Mitigation."
Shamley said the resolutions sent to Congress included a veiled threat that the county would take over federal lands if forests weren't thinned to prevent another catastrophic wildfire.
"It's amazing once you lower the boom," he said. "It was amazing the help that came out of the woodwork."
Shamley said some thinning programs in the county had been undertaken previously, but they generally avoided steep slopes. But many communities in the county are surrounded by slopes that are overgrown.
"People have just got to face the fact that it can't always be fixed with a machine or a computer," Shamley said. "Sometimes you need an old forester."
Breidenthal has said Jackson County needs to press for the same kind of action taken in Arizona, but local forestry officials say stewardship and thinning projects are hardly a new thing in Southern Oregon.
Jim Wolfe, coordinator for the Jackson County Integrated Fire Plan, said 82,000 acres were thinned in the county from 2007 to 2012. The U.S. Forest Service calculates that at least 72,000 acres in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest have been scheduled for thinning, with much of the timber being sent to local mills. And a current stewardship project is clearing and harvesting 7,500 acres in the Ashland Watershed.
Stewardship programs also aren't new to Apache County. In 2004, the Forest Service entered into a contract with a timber products company to harvest 150,000 acres over 10 years.
Breidenthal said the Mail Tribune was "misguided" in its questions about his statements on Apache County.
He didn't respond directly to questions about his previous statement on "sovereignty" in Apache County, nor to the existing stewardship and thinning programs in local forests.
"I am interested in the legal process they went through to obtain stewardship of their category 4 federal lands," he said in an email.
But Forest Service officials and press coverage make it clear that the Apache County effort was coordinated with the federal agency and not handed over to the county.
"We're working very well with the Forest Service," said Apache County Manager Delwin Wengert in a story published by the Cronkite News. "It's a win-win for everyone — it helps the county, it helps the Forest Service, it helps the residents and it's a model for future projects."
Scroggin said he privately questioned some of Breidenthal's statements on the campaign trail, but has tried to avoid injecting a negative tone into the campaign itself.
He said he didn't follow up on the comments about the Endangered Species Act.
"I thought it sounded suspicious," he said.
Scroggin said the Apache County claims also didn't seem to ring true, saying he realized Jackson County already had thinning and forest management projects under way.
"It's a model to build on," he said of those efforts. "It's a process that we've got to work on."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email email@example.com.