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Sen. Wyden's timber bill gets mixed reviews

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's proposal for O&C lands has been met with mostly lukewarm endorsement or flat-out rejection by many who have been active in the debate over the future management of the forestlands.

Many also couched their initial reaction to the 180-page Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013, noting they hoped to pore over the material in the coming days, then work with Wyden to improve what they perceive as its shortcomings.

The bill would double annual timber production on the 2.1 million acres of former Oregon and California Railroad Co. lands now managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, bringing the harvest to more than 300 million board feet annually.

Wyden, Democratic chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, proposes managing slightly more than half of the lands for timber production and the rest for conservation of old-growth forests and fish and wildlife habitat.

John Rachor, vice-chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, spoke out in favor of the bill.

"I feel it is a compromise that will work," he told the Mail Tribune. "The environmental community is opposed to a lot of it. So is the timber industry. But life is about compromises. This is a bill that could make its way through the Senate and the House and the president would sign it."

Rachor, who is a member of the Association of O&C Counties board, said no one will get everything they want when it comes to O&C lands.

"I have high hopes for it," he said, noting he hopes it will resolve lawsuits over timber sales.

But Joseph Vaile, executive director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, felt the timber industry was getting too much of the O&C pie.

"Everybody seems to be giving something up except for the timber industry," he said.

While the bill does identify some important areas in southwestern Oregon that need additional protection, it lacks an equitable approach between logging and preservation, Vaile said.

"Southwest Oregon streams would be harmed," he said. "This bill would reduce the buffer width. There is no science that supports logging near stream sides."

While he stressed his group wants to work with Wyden and his staff on the bill, he expressed concern that the environmental review would be shortened to the point that public input would be severely limited.

"These are huge areas with long-lasting plans," he said. "Those plans would be fairly vague. People who have BLM land in their backyard and folks who know land well wouldn't be able to raise issues and negotiate solutions."

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, had a different initial response.

"At first glance, it appears that Sen. Wyden's proposal falls short of providing our communities the level of legal certainty, jobs and county revenues they deserve and have been promised," Partin said in a prepared statement, in which noted he was speaking for the AFRC, Associated Oregon Loggers, Douglas Timber Operators and Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.

"Now that Sen. Wyden has released his legislative proposal, we can have an open, informed debate about the differences between his proposal and the bipartisan, compromise legislation recently passed by the House," Partin said.

He was referring to the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act sponsored by U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

Partin fired off a letter to Wyden on Wednesday asking for more data, including a district-by-district breakdown of long-term, sustainable timber harvests under the bill. In addition, he requested an analysis on projected timber and county revenues as a result of the legislation.

Dean Finnerty, public lands coordinator for Trout Unlimited in Oregon, felt the legislation had promise.

"We are encouraged by the initial draft, which allows for increased timber harvest that will benefit local economies while protecting and restoring the fish and game habitat that is so important to anglers and hunters and to the rural communities in the region that benefit greatly from sportsmen," he said.

He said cautioned that more analysis is needed to determine whether the bill would adequately protect fish and game habitat and sporting opportunities for generations to come.

But Environment Oregon said the bill will put both wildlife and drinking water at risk.

"Environment Oregon opposes Sen. Wyden's decision to put over a million acres of Oregon's treasured forests at risk to reckless logging," said Rikki Seguin, the group's conservation advocate.

"We are happy to see the conservation efforts included in the bill, including the creation of 87,000 miles of wilderness and protection for 165 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers," Seguin added. "However, the conservation benefits of this bill are far outweighed by increased development and industrial logging."

Nor was the Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands pleased with the bill.

"At a time when the demand for clean water and fish and wildlife recovery is high, Congress should be doing all it can to ensure these Oregon values are embraced, not eroded," said Josh Laughlin, campaign director for the group.

"This bill guts the landmark Northwest Forest Plan's environmental protection measures, limits citizen participation and judicial review in forest planning and doesn't solve the funding crisis faced by some western Oregon counties," he added.

Neither Oregon Wild nor the Sierra Club liked what they initially saw in the bill.

"Oregon Wild has worked with Sen. Wyden many times over the years to craft balanced environmental legislation," said its director, Steve Pedery. "But we must strongly oppose this bill because it is so heavily weighted towards clearcut logging and weakening environmental safeguards."

Meanwhile, Wyden told the Mail Tribune earlier this week that he will make passing his O&C bill his top priority in 2014.

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