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WOPR fans, foes debate its future

If Joseph Vaile, a vocal opponent of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's troubled Western Oregon Plan Revision, elected to represent the WOPR at a Halloween party, chances are he would show up as an undead creature.

"We've called it the 'zombie WOPR' — it's on its final legs but I wouldn't call it totally out yet," observed biologist Vaile, conservation coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Citing environmental damage and the loss of old-growth trees, the group has lobbied hard against what is known as the "whopper."

But Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association and a WOPR supporter, sees it as a misunderstood plan that would work, providing it is given more life.

"What I'd like to see is more exposure be given to the fact the WOPR was one of the most exhaustive studies the BLM has ever undertaken in land management," said Schott, an attorney by training. "Despite what most judges are assuming, most concerns they had were addressed in the making of the document. It concerns me they are dismissing it out of whole cloth."

The latest judicial ruling regarding the WOPR came Sept. 29, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Hubel in Portland determined it was finalized without the required evaluation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists on its impacts on threatened and endangered species. Hubel recommended that the WOPR be vacated, putting the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan in its stead.

However, his ruling is not final. The BLM has 30 days — until Halloween — to respond to the recommendation.

Hubel's decision was the result of a lawsuit brought by KS Wild and eight other plaintiffs, including Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Pacific Rivers Council, Oregon Wild, The Wilderness Society, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity, Institute for Fisheries Resources and Umpqua Watersheds.

"Legally, WOPR is not done — we're still under WOPR right now," observed Jim Whittington, spokesman for the BLM's Medford District. "We are in the position that when we design timber sales they are both under the WOPR and the Northwest Forest Plan.

"It is extra work for us," he added. "It's tough to make sure we are abiding by both plans."

The district produced its goal of slightly more than 21 million board feet of timber for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, he said.

"We are able to work with both plans right now, but we can't do that indefinitely," he said.

Issued in late 2008, the WOPR was the result of a 2003 legal settlement between the Bush administration and the Portland-based American Forest Resource Council. Basically, it would have allowed some 500 million board feet of timber to be sold from the more than 2.1 million acres of BLM lands in Western Oregon. But lawsuits and economic issues prevented the annual harvest from nearing anything close to those levels.

In 2009, it was administratively withdrawn by the Obama administration. However, a federal court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the withdrawal was invalid, resulting in the reinstatement of the original WOPR. That prompted the opponents to refile their lawsuit. In Portland, BLM lawyers agreed that WOPR illegally ignored federal Endangered Species Act requirements.

"The BLM is not opposing the plaintiffs in this case," Whittington said. "The position of the department is that the plan should be withdrawn."

The agency has 30 days to respond to Hubel's recommendation, he said, adding that if the factions involved in the lawsuit don't come to an agreement on the recommendation, the court will make a ruling on it.

"I suspect our lawyers will be working hard on this for a while yet," Whittington said.

Meanwhile, the agency is buoyed by the fact a pilot project in the Applegate Valley sold for three times more than expected, he said.

He was referring to last month's sale of the 1.5-million-board-feet Pilot Joe timber sale, which went for $230,606 to Boise Cascade Wood Products. Pilot Joe is the first sale for the project since it was proposed last year by forest ecology professors Norm Johnson at Oregon State University and Jerry Franklin at the University of Washington. The goal is to preserve the largest trees and improve forest health, including northern spotted owl habitat, while producing wood for mills and reducing wildfire danger.

It is one of three such projects in Oregon that could change the way timber is managed on federal forestland nationally. The other pilot projects under way are on BLM land in the Myrtle Creek drainage in Douglas County and on tribal land in Coos County. Franklin and Johnson are heading up those projects also.

The two scientists, along with environmental activists and timber-industry representatives, joined forces to convince Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last summer to launch the pilot projects. The pilots call for preserving trees older than 150 years and avoiding entry into roadless areas.

In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the BLM is working also with the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative, Applegate Partnership and Watershed Council in designing and monitoring the project.

"It seems like everyone is at the point where they recognize there needs to be some kind of change," Whittington said.

Both Vaile and Schott appear to agree on that point. Both are members of the small-diameter collaborative and supporters of the pilot projects.

For his part, Vaile would like to see the BLM follow in the footsteps of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest when it comes to timber harvests.

"They are doing a lot of good work, thinning plantations and leaving the large trees," he said. "There are models out there that work for protecting the environment while producing timber products."

The pilot projects, which are expected to be expanded locally, are a learning tool to determine how to achieve those goals, he said.

"I am optimistic that restoration can be the driving management scheme for southwest Oregon's public forests," he added.

While Schott sees plenty of potential in the pilot project, he noted they are relatively small.

"I'd like to see at least 10 times larger next year and 10 times more the following year," he said. "Right now, it is just a drop in the bucket."

Noting that WOPR never was about harvesting old-growth timber, he said the goal of timber harvests should be for forest health, to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires and to provide jobs.

"We should be in a management situation where all the site's needs are being met," he said.

He is also concerned that many of the logs from private lands are being purchased by China, putting a squeeze on Oregon mills competing for what he sees as precious little timber off federal lands. Raw logs from federal or state land cannot be shipped to foreign markets, he noted.

"Without cheaper logs, I don't know that many mills can withstand this extended malaise," he said. "If we don't start utilizing our natural resources in creating jobs and wealth, we will remain a consumer nation, not a producer nation. ... This is about our survival."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.