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Forest-plan backers hope time is ripe for O&C solution

Backers of a new timber management strategy for Western Oregon's federal forest lands — one that would increase logging significantly to help stabilize rural county budgets while setting aside new conservation and wilderness areas — are guardedly optimistic that this is the year they can get something through Congress.

Having two Oregon lawmakers, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, both Democrats, in influential posts on their chambers' respective natural resources committees sets the table, they say. And the already-drafted but very different House and Senate plans for more than 2 million acres of former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands provide a tangible framework for detailed negotiations in coming months.

"I think we're farther down (the) road than we've ever been," Gov. John Kitzhaber at said a press conference in Salem last week. "I believe there's a solution there."

Describing the situation, Nick Smith, a spokesman for Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, a pro-timber group, used a football analogy.

"It feels like we've taken this thing all the way down to the 5-yard line," he said. "Now we've got to take it in for the score."

But environmental opponents of increased logging say they believe that, because the O&C lands are unique to Oregon, stand-alone legislation dealing just with those forests won't gain traction in Congress.

Including an O&C lands-management bill in a broader package of legislation dealing with changes to federally owned lands is therefore the clearest path to its passage, they say. And on those issues, they argue that the partisan divide is wide, making a workable compromise almost impossible to strike.

"We tend to think that the Oregon (logging) debate is at the center of all of this, and it's not," said Steve Pedery, the conservation director with Oregon Wild. "Any big public lands bill that passes the (Republican-controlled) House will contain some significant movement towards the privatization of public lands and their resources. ... The (Democrat-led) Senate and the Obama administration won't allow that."

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources will hold a first hearing on Wyden's O&C lands proposal, which was released publicly in late November.

Among those planning to testify are representatives of Oregon's counties, including Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken, and its timber industry, as well as professor Jerry Franklin, a forestry expert from the University of Washington who champions the "ecological forestry" practice espoused in Wyden's bill.

Sean Stevens, Oregon Wild's executive director, also will testify.

The next steps after that hearing are unclear at this point. Although Wyden is expected soon to relinquish his natural-resources-committee chairmanship to become the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he is expected to continue to sit — and remain influential — on the natural-resources committee.

Observers say there are two obvious strategies for passing a new O&C timber management policy.

The bill could be part of a broader federal lands package. Or it could be tacked on — as a "rider" — to another important, but potentially unrelated, piece of legislation.

DeFazio said he believes that the first route is viable. Congress hasn't passed a bill designating new federally protected wilderness areas, scenic rivers or national monuments since 2009, he said.

Both the House and Senate O&C bills contain a new wilderness designation for the Devil's Staircase in the Coast Range, an expansion of the Wild Rogue wilderness area and at least 130 miles of Wild and Scenic River designations.

DeFazio said "there's a pent-up demand" for new protected areas "scattered all over the country." Legislation containing "a long list" of such areas could generate bipartisan support and be combined with the increase in logging on O&C lands, he said.

Healthy Forests Healthy Communities' Smith said lawmakers from several other states, including Wyoming and Montana, also are sponsoring bills that would create "more active" management of federal forests and other natural resources. That legislation as well as Wyden's new, separate timber management proposal for Eastern Oregon — which was voted through to the full Senate in December — all could be part of the public lands package, he added.

"There seems to clearly be an appetite for more forest management in this Congress," Smith said.

Oregon Wild's Pedery said that, even if such a public-lands package contained new wilderness protections, "it's not going to be a 'green' bill" because "it is going to be combined with the priorities of the oil and natural gas industries" to be acceptable in the House.

Asked about the possibility of making an O&C bill a rider on another piece of legislation, Keith Chu, Wyden's spokesman, didn't rule it out.

"Senator Wyden is going to be creative to get his bill through," Chu said. "This is his top natural resources priority."

Pedery said Wyden has used the "rider" strategy before, as recently as last fall when the latest one-year extension of federal timber payments to rural counties were attached to a "must-pass" bill reopening federal helium reserves.

The so-called timber payments were designed to compensate counties across the nation for revenue they lost after environmental concerns caused a sharp decline in logging on federal lands.

The rider "strategy is harder with controversial legislation than with (timber payments), which have bipartisan support and are backed by the counties and the environmental community," Pedery said.

"First you have to find must-pass legislation, and then you have to elbow your time to the front of an always-long line."

Beyond finding a way through Congress for any O&C legislation, proponents also will need to reconcile the significant differences between the House and Senate bills.

That process has started well, according to DeFazio, who said private talks between he and Wyden and their staffs have been occurring regularly in recent weeks. Should the Wyden bill be approved in the Senate, negotiations to craft a final bill would occur in a behind-closed-doors conference committee involving House and Senate members.

DeFazio already has agreed to drop a central concept in the House bill to create a state-run trust to manage the O&C lands where increased logging would occur. That provision was viewed as a nonstarter in the Senate and in the eyes of the Obama administration, which said it would veto the House O&C bill.