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Wyden Gets Pushback On His O&C Timber Bill

M.O. Stevens/Wikimedia Commons

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden pledges to do everything he can to get his proposed timber plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama this year. He’s gathered support from key players in both the timber industry and the environmental community, and he’s painting opponents as uncompromising extremists.

But, hold-outs on both sides say splitting the baby in half isn’t the wisest choice.

At a Senate hearing late last week in Washington DC, Wyden said the rancor that accompanies forestry debates has one major cause.

Ron Wyden: “The conversation about managing these lands has now been monopolized by the ideological extremes who seem allergic to the idea of a compromise.”

The senator positioned his bill as a commonsense middle ground in the Northwest’s decades-old timber wars.

Ron Wyden: “Our legislation ends the 'stop everything' approach that has paralyzed forest management, and at the same time it acknowledges that the days of billion board-foot clear cuts aren’t coming back."

At issue are Oregon’s roughly two million acres of federally-owned O&C lands. Wyden says his bill, which would conserve about half the O&C acreage while roughly doubling harvest in the other half, will protect forests while putting rural communities back to work. County governments have been slashing vital services because federal timber payments have dwindled as logging on O&C lands has declined. Congress member Peter DeFazio, who co-sponsored a related bill in the House, rattled off a list of symptoms of what he called a crisis in southwest Oregon.

DeFazio: “Bankrupt counties, 15-to-20 percent real unemployment, one out of every four people on food stamps, 25 percent of the school aged children growing up in poverty, unhealthy forests, lack of opportunity.”

Defazio echoed Wyden’s call for moderation.

DeFazio: “It’s time to move away from the extremes, from the swinging pendulum, to find and legislate a reasonable and balanced solution.”

Many of the witnesses called to testify at the hearing sang from the same hymnal, saying increased timber harvest, coupled with more careful forestry techniques, could preserve the environment while fostering economic prosperity.

But Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson remained unconvinced. Robertson pointed out that, since 1937, the O&C lands were managed for timber to produce revenue for the counties in which they’re located.

Doug Robertson: “The O&C lands are unlike any other federal lands. They are unique historically, legally and physically. They are not national forests, and they management mandate is not multiple use.”

Robertson said the harvest levels anticipated under the Wyden plan would not adequately boost employment nor make county governments whole.

Some environmental groups aren‘t prepared to play ball, either. Sean Stevens from Oregon Wild rejected the idea that the pendulum had swung too far toward environmental protection.

Sean Stevens: “Had Oregon not clear cut nearly 90 percent of our ancient forests, pushed numerous wild salmon runs to the brink of extinction and muddied clean drinking water through excessive logging, we may have faced a much different world today.”

Ashland-based scientist Dominick DellaSala didn’t appear at the Senate hearing, but he submitted written testimony as president of the North America Section of the Society for Conservation Biology. The group, along with another scientific organization, detailed concerns that the Wyden bill put already-threatened fish and wildlife at greater risk.

DellaSala told JPR the talk of balance and compromise might make political sense, but that biologically, these ecosystems still had not recovered from decades of abuse.

Dominick DellaSala: “To do more intensive logging on those forests is going to compromise a lot of the values we care about, like clean air, clean water and fisheries.”

Ultimately, DellaSala says, the earth’s natural systems need what they need to function in a healthy way. And nature doesn’t care if those needs fit into our political compromises.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.