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Wyden bill would open county's O&C lands to logging

Columbia County has small share of federal timberlands in western Oregon


by: COURTESY GRAPHIC FROM SEN. RON WYDENS SENATE WEBSITE - A map of western Oregon's federal timberlands shows which lands would be preserved for conservation (orange) and which would be opened up to logging (dark green) under a new proposal by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.A bill introduced Tuesday, Nov. 26, by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would open virtually all of the 10,960 acres of federal forestlands in Columbia County to logging.

Wyden’s proposed Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013 would, according to the senator’s website, roughly double the annual timber yield from western Oregon’s O&C lands — named for the railroad that owned the more than 2 million acres of forestland before they were placed under federal control in 1916 — and create an estimated 1,650 new jobs.

A map posted to the website showing which O&C lands would be opened to logging and which would be preserved as “conservation emphasis area” shows what appears to be all of the O&C land in Columbia County shaded as “forestry emphasis area.”

Wyden said on a conference call Tuesday that he is unsure exactly how many acres in Columbia County will be preserved, if any, but he said the split statewide between logging and conservation areas is “almost 50-50.”

Under the bill, as introduced by Wyden, stands of trees more than 120 years old and individual trees more than 150 years old would be off-limits for logging. Much of those old growth forests are concentrated in southern Oregon, where timber has historically been a staple industry.

Wyden’s bill comes two months after the House of Representatives approved a bill by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would increase the timber harvest by subjecting federal forestlands to less stringent state laws and regulations.

The White House has threatened to veto the House bill if it comes to President Barack Obama’s desk, and Wyden made it clear he would pursue his own legislation rather than taking up the House bill in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which he chairs.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who voted against the House bill, said in a statement Tuesday that she is “evaluating” Wyden’s proposal.

“I will continue to advocate for a legislative solution that sufficiently balances economic and environmental objectives and, importantly, that has a chance of passing in both chambers of Congress and becoming law,” Bonamici’s emailed statement read in part.

Bonamici, who represents Columbia County in the House, and Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who sits on the Association of O&C Counties, have emphasized their desire to see a “long-term solution” for the O&C lands.

Annual payments to counties with O&C lands have dropped off in recent years as Congress has reduced federal expenditures. A recent extension of payments under the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act will only last one year and was approved at reduced funding levels from the previous year.

Wyden said Tuesday that his bill addresses forestry jobs rather than focusing on county payments.

“This bill is first and foremost about jobs in the private sector — getting people back to work,” Wyden said, adding that he was also “looking at a long-term approach to funding the safety net” beyond the year-long Secure Rural Schools funding extension he helped pass this fall.

Hyde said he favors that approach as well.

“County payments are great, and clearly we need those,” Hyde said. “But more than that, we’re looking for our economy back, looking for our jobs back.”

Speaking Tuesday afternoon, Hyde said he and other AOCC officials are still reviewing the legislation and have yet to form a concrete opinion on it, although he said the AOCC was hoping for 500 million to 750 million board feet of timber per year, rather than the 300 million to 350 million board feet Wyden said his bill is likely to produce.

But Hyde said he and the AOCC are “hopeful” that the federal government can produce O&C policy that will give “certainty” to rural Oregon counties, and he called the introduction of Wyden’s bill “a step in the right direction.”