Latest O&C Forest Plan Gathers Critics
Federal land managers labored long and hard on their latest plan for the 2.6 million acres in western Oregon known as the O&C lands.
And they admit it was crafted, at least in part, to avoid protracted legal battles.
But the plan hadn’t even been officially released yet when it began gathering threats of lawsuits from all sides.
Jim Whittington, with the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management, says the agency’s four-year effort to update its management plan for the O&C lands hits the sweet spot.
“We came up with a plan that actually reduces the acres available for timber harvest, increases reserves and protections but still is able to elevate the timber volume a little bit,” he says.
That means boosting the timber cut by 37 percent, to 278 million board feet annually. Whittington says although the proposal would allow logging to occur much closer to streams than is currently allowed, the reduction was done in way that will enhance environmental protection.
“(It will) improve aquatic conditions, allow us to go in and restore more riparian areas in a better way and allow us to manage for fire in riparian areas that we haven’t to necessarily in the past.”
The plan also includes enhanced recreational opportunities and climate change goals. But judging by the general reaction, most of the parties with a stake in these lands aren’t buying it.
Of course, that’s nothing new. The O&C lands have a long and contentious history.
Laid out in a checkerboard pattern across 18 western Oregon counties, the parcels were originally granted to the Oregon and California Railroad in the 1860s. By 1916 most of the land ended up back in the hands of the US government.
Since 1937, the counties have gotten a share of the proceeds of timber sales in these forests, to compensate for losing so much of their tax base to tax-free federal land. But as logging has declined in recent years, those funds have dwindled. Loss of that stable source of revenue has left many of those counties with dire budget shortfalls, leading to severe cutbacks in law enforcement and other county services.
Tony Hyde is a Columbia County Commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties. He says the new BLM plan provides barely half the timber revenue that 1937 law promises.
“Which says BLM shall manage all of the timberlands for sustained yield production,” he says. “It also mandates a minimum harvest of at least 500 million board feet a year.”
Travis Joseph heads the American Forest Resource Council, a Portland-based timber industry group. He makes a simple legal argument.
“You’ve gotta follow the law. And the law of 1937, the O&C Act, has not been changed.”
The new BLM plan projects harvest values more than doubling to $51 million a year. The O&C counties would share half of that.
But Joseph says the proposed plan won’t even provide for the number of timber jobs possible under the existing Northwest Forest Plan.
“It falls short on revenues, it falls short on carbon sequestration. It will not help recover the spotted owl. And it certainly won’t provide the raw materials to make American wood products consumed by every American every single day,” he says.
Tony Hyde says the Association of O&C Counties intends to sue BLM over the plan’s shortcomings. Travis Joseph says his group is considering legal action as well.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have their own issues with the plan. Josh Laughlin, with Cascadia Wildlands, agrees these public lands should provide for the local economy. But, he says …
“There’s plenty of work to be done restoratively thinning the tree farms that are out here and we really think the agency should be focused kinda on that restoration-driven mission in this plan, rather than ramping up the cut.”
Looking at the increased logging, reduced streamside buffers and changes in wildlife protection proposed in the new plan, Laughlin sees an ominous trend.
“What we’re really seeing here with this proposal is a dismantling of a larger conservation framework for the west side forests in the Pacific Northwest,” he says. “And the BLM is ultimately withdrawing from that larger Northwest Forest Plan strategy.”
Laughlin says his group and others are combing through the 2,000-page plan and are keeping their legal options open.
The public protest period for the Western Oregon Resource Management Plan ends on May 15th.
Officials hope to have a final version ready to sign by mid-summer.