(CN) — The first update to an Oregon forest management plan in 22 years has reignited debate over the goal of forest management in the Pacific Northwest, once again pitting struggling rural economies against conservation advocates.
Seventeen counties in western Oregon and an association of logging groups say the Bureau of Land Management’s refusal to log as much forest as is legally allowed is driving them to the brink of insolvency. The groups filed separate lawsuits in Federal Court in Washington on Friday, claiming the government illegally prioritizes environmental protection over logging.
And on Monday, a group of environmental advocacy groups piled on, claiming in federal court in Portland that the BLM and the Department of the Interior abandoned the previous, science-based management plan in favor of a plan that sacrifices riparian buffer zones for the sake of politics. And they say that violates several laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act.
Logging in Oregon ground to a halt in the wake of the 1990 listing of the spotted owl as endangered. The stalemate ended when then-President Bill Clinton brokered talks between loggers, environmentalists and the government that resulted in the 1993 Northwest Forest Plan.
On Friday, the BLM released its first update to the plan. It says its new resource management plan will protect nearly all the old-growth forest within the 2.1 million acres it manages while providing a reliable yield of timber revenue to help the economies of struggling rural counties.
The BLM manages millions of acres known as the O&C Lands in a checkerboard across the western half of Oregon. Congress put the land in the hands of the Oregon and California Railroad Company in the 1860s, but took it back in 1916 because the company was unable to sell all the land to settlers.
The O&C Act of 1937 directs the BLM to manage the O&C Lands as watersheds that regulate stream flow for salmon and as permanent timber production land for rural counties whose tax base is reduced by large swaths of federal land. The BLM must also comply with regulations under the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
Those opposing directives have created continuous controversy about how to manage the land. A 2008 effort to update the Northwest Forest Plan was shelved when it didn’t pass an endangered species review.
BLM spokeswoman Sarah Levy defended the new plan, calling it the result of a painstaking effort to balance opposing interests.
“Our analysis shows that we can achieve job growth, more recreation and timber money for rural counties while also increasing the protections for fish and wildlife,” Levy said in a phone interview.
But loggers, rural counties and environmentalists are all in agreement: the new plan won’t work.
Environmentalists say it allows too much clear-cutting and strips away protection of stream-side buffers. Loggers and rural counties complain that the bureau’s plan will only net roughly one-quarter of the amount of timber that could be sustainably produced each year.
But the real dispute is centered on the rural counties in western Oregon who say they are stymied by their inability to tax the majority of their land base because it is owned by the federal government.
The Association of O&C Counties claims the BLM is shirking its duty to provide rural counties with the timber revenue they need to provide basic services like 24-hour emergency services, search-and-rescue for citizens and tourists who get lost in the forest and road maintenance.
The American Forest Resource Council claims in a second lawsuit that the new management plan threatens the solvency of logging companies and small towns that rely on a logging economy.
The BLM plans to produce between 205 million and 278 million board feet of lumber per year, which is less than half the amount the counties want.
“To ensure adequate revenues to the counties, Congress expressly mandated that the amount of timber sold each year from the O&C lands shall not be less than one half-billion board-feet or the annual sustained yield capacity of those forests,” the association claims.
“Rather than complying with the express obligations of the O&C Act to manage the O&C lands for permanent forest production on a sustained yield basis, however, the 2016 [plans] improperly set aside the vast majority of such lands for other purposes, primarily wildlife conservation.”
But Todd True, managing attorney for the Seattle office of Earthjustice, said over the phone that the BLM has no legal obligation to produce any particular number of board-feet per year.
“We don’t think that the law requires the BLM to produce more timber than clean water and other wildlife on those lands can sustain,” True said. “There has to be a balance among all of those resources.”
The association claims the bureau’s responsibility to provide timber revenue to rural counties under the O&C Act trumps the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
“The United States Supreme Court has held that the Endangered Species Act ‘covers only discretionary agency actions and does not attach to actions that an agency is required by statute to undertake once certain specified triggering events have occurred,'” the lawsuit states.
“As a result, the act does not trump the statutory requirements of the O&C Act mandating that O&C lands classified as timberlands ‘shall be managed’ for the purpose of ‘permanent forest production’ on a sustained yield basis, and that the amount of timber sold each year from the O&C lands shall not be less than one-half billion board-feet or the annual sustained yield capacity of those forests,” the lawsuit states.
Rocky McVay, executive director for the Association of O&C Counties, did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Greg Haller, director of the environmental advocacy group Portland Rivers, said over the phone that his organization is worried that the new plan’s provisions to reduce riparian buffer zones by half would endanger fish who depend on water cooled by the shade of tall trees and riparian habitat that includes fallen logs.
Portland Rivers filed a formal protest over that part of the plan, but the BLM found that the protest did not show that the new plan broke any laws.
“The former strategy has been working,” Haller said. “It’s supported by the best available science. And it’s kind of like if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
That’s the same argument that Pacific Rivers and the other environmental advocates advance in their lawsuit.
The new plan illegally eliminates “protections for key watersheds, riparian reserves, required watershed analysis, and the duty to meet and maintain Aquatic Conservation Strategy objectives,” according to Pacific Rivers’ lawsuit.
Pacific Rivers demands an order declaring the new plan illegal under the O&C Act. It is represented by Susan Brown with the Western Environmental Law Center in Portland, Oregon.
The Association of O&C Counties and the American Forest Resource Council both want an order declaring that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has illegally protected too much O&C land from logging and refused to provide the legally required minimum number of board-feet of lumber per year.
It is represented by Per Ramfjord with Stoel Rives in Portland, Oregon. Mark Rutzick in Oak Hill, Virginia, represents the American Forest Resource Council.
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