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How Wyden’s O&C Bill Walks The Line Between Logging And Conservation

Foresters visit an old clear-cut on BLM land near Roseburg, Oregon.
Foresters visit an old clear-cut on BLM land near Roseburg, Oregon.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that sets the stage for sweeping changes in the management of 2.1 million acres of federal forest in Western Oregon.

The bill attempts to resolve decades of lawsuits over the Bureau of Land Management’s so-called O&C timberlands in Western Oregon by designating some areas for conservation and others for timber harvest. It would limit the environmental review process for logging in some designated harvest areas, while guaranteeing protection for stands of trees over 120 years old.

The O&C lands - named for the Oregon & California Railroad that once owned them - comprise a checkerboard of parcels in Western Oregon. The forests are home to significant populations of federally protected spotted owls and marbled murrelets. And the water that flows through these forests makes for healthier salmon habitat.

Logging these forests historically provided a key source of revenue for county governments through profit-sharing from federal timber sales.

“This new foundation will more than double our timber harvest across 18 timber counties and ensure that harvest continues for years to come. It uses the best available science to mimic natural processes and create healthier, more diverse forests,” Wyden said in a press release prior to his public appearance Tuesday in Salem with Gov. John Kitzhaber to unveil the plan.

the Democratic senator said his management plan for the forests would allow for the logging of at least 300 million board feet of timber a year, according to an analysis that was jointly produced by the BLM and Oregon State University forestry professor Norm Johnson.

Wyden chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That places him in a strategic position to move the bill forward. Wyden introduced the legislation in response to a proposal introduced by three Oregon represenatives: Republican Greg Walden and Democrats Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader. Their proposal, which passed the House in September, transfers into a state-owned trust roughly 1 million acres of O&C forests. That House bill faces a veto threat from President Obama.

Here's how Wyden’s Senate bill addresses some key issues:

Diving The Land: The bill places roughly half of the O&C lands in "forestry emphasis areas," focused on producing timber harvests. The remaining forests would be managed for conservation. But in contrast to the House bill, Wyden would not give any federal land to the state to manage.

Ecological Logging: The secretary of the Interior Department would be required to calculate a sustained yield for the forestry emphasis areas and to aim to meet that target every year. Wyden estimates the yield would be about 300 million board feet.

This logging would follow a blueprint created by forestry professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin and informed by research into how forests recovered after the Mount St. Helens eruption. Trees would be planted and cut on rotations of about 80 to 100 years. About a third of the trees in harvested areas would be left standing. Foresters would encourage a diversity of tree species to grow, as opposed to single-species fir plantations. Loggers would be required to leave buffers of at least 300 feet around lakes and wetlands, at least 150 feet around fish streams, and 75 feet around other streams.

A Legal Fast Track: The bill would limit the ability of citizens and environmental groups to challenge individual timber sales. Instead of analyzing each timber sale individually, the BLM would prepare two environmental impact statements to cover all logging and management activities on the O&C lands during a 10-year period. In the designated harvest areas, the bill also eliminates the requirement that the BLM survey for rare species before logging.

Old Trees: Wyden's bill would ban cutting stands of trees more than 120 years old and individual trees more than 150 years old on the O&C lands. The bill also expands the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument and creates new national recreation areas on the Rogue and Molalla rivers.

Water: It designates 165 miles of wild and scenic river, including sections of Wasson Creek, the Nestucca and Molalla rivers and 35 tributaries of the Rogue. It also creates special management units to protect drinking water supplies in Springfield and in Lane, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Tribal Land Transfers: The bill would return about 30,000 acres of forest in Western Oregon to two tribes. Some of the forest land near Roseburg would go back to the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians and forest near Coos Bay would be returned to the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians.

Early reaction from environmentalists and the timber industry expressed support for Wyden's efforts -- along with calls for changes to make the legislation more to their liking.

“At first glance, it appears that Senator Wyden’s proposal falls short of providing our communities the level of legal certainty, jobs, and county revenues they deserve and have been promised,” said Tom Partin, president of the in a statement released jointly by a coalition that also included the and

put out its own statement from executive director Joseph Vaile, who said his group commends Wyden "for his interest in protecting special places in Southern Oregon," while also expressing hope "that Senator Wyden considers positive changes in his bill" to protect forests, rivers and recreation areas.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.