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Forest practices pact is a hopeful sign

There may be hope for reconciliation between competing interests after all — at least when it comes to forest policy on private timber lands in Oregon.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Monday that a dozen timber companies and about an equal number of environmental groups have signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agree to spend the next two years working on updating the Oregon Forest Practices Act that governs timber harvests on private lands. The act was first enacted in 1971, and was the first of its kind in the country.

The signed memorandum is just the starting point, but it represents a real breakthrough in what has long been an adversarial relationship between the timber industry and environmentalists. Perhaps most encouraging is the agreement by both sides to drop pending ballot initiatives and lawsuits. Environmental groups, for instance, were pushing to ask voters in the November election to enact stricter forest rules by initiative. Instead, the rules will be overhauled in the mediated talks going forward.

That’s a better approach than fighting over whether to enact complicated rules at the ballot box.

Another key agreement was to immediately work together on legislation addressing two important issues: aerial spraying of pesticides on forest lands and streamside buffer zones in Southern Oregon forests.

Legislation will be considered in this year’s session to restrict helicopter spraying of pesticides by imposing no-application zones around inhabited dwellings and schools and around streams and to establish a requirement that timber companies notify the public, not just local governments, before spraying occurs. Helicopter spraying has been a controversial issue in Lane and Lincoln counties in particular, prompting opponents to mount county-level initiative petition campaigns to restrict the practice. But county efforts wind up in conflict with state law, which bars local governments from regulating the use of pesticides. A judge threw out a Lincoln County initiative for that reason.

Far better to have the industry and environmental groups work to solve the conflict at the state level.

The lack of stream buffers in Southern Oregon has also been a sore point with environmental groups since 2016, when the state Department of Forestry expanded streamside riparian protection rules for Western Oregon forests but exempted southwest Oregon because the department did not have hard data for this region, and conditions vary in different parts of the state. The agreement signed Monday calls for legislation this session to add the wider stream buffers to southwest Oregon forests.

The goal over the next two years is to create a conservation plan for all private forestlands that protects threatened and endangered species, with legislation to be enacted no later than the 2022 legislative session.

According to Brown’s office, this historic agreement started when timber companies asked the governor’s office to mediate talks between the industry and environmentalists to make a deal over the dueling initiatives and lawsuits. Four meetings took place, leading to Monday’s announced agreement.

Congratulations to both sides for agreeing to work together instead of at cross purpose, and to Brown for helping it happen.