PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The Bureau of Land Management’s plan to stop logging on nearly all its old-growth forest in western Oregon and increase its timber harvest elsewhere satisfies neither environmentalists nor the rural counties that depend on dwindling logging revenue, both of whom have promised to sue if the BLM does not make key changes.
The draft proposal is the BLM’s first update to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan to add the latest science, policies and laws from the past two decades to its plan for 2.4 million acres of forest it controls in western Oregon.
The plan would increase logging in western Oregon by 37 percent, but in more restricted areas. It would make nearly all old-growth BLM forest off-limits to logging and increase the protected forest reserves to 75 percent of the bureau’s holdings.
Rural counties say the plan will produce only half the timber they want.
Environmentalists say it allows too much clear-cutting and logging too close to streams.
The 1994 Northwest Forest Plan brought a temporary cease fire to timber wars in the Pacific Northwest. With logging at a standstill because of new rules to protect the spotted owl, President Bill Clinton forced discussions between environmentalists, loggers and government agencies that resulted in the sweeping management plan. Since then, vociferous disagreements have kept the plan from ever being overhauled.
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.
Those two 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.
Lines Drawn for a New Battle
On one side of the fence, 17 of the rural counties affected by the new plan say they will sue the BLM if it doesn’t boost the timber harvest. They say the bureau is legally required to share timber revenue to supplement their atrophied economies. Without their historical logging income, the counties are struggling to keep their jails open and provide basic services such as 24-hour emergency service.
Rocky McVay, executive director of the Association of O&C Counties, which represents all 18 counties affected by the new plan, told Courthouse News the government acts like an absentee landowner.
The federal government owns a major portion of the land in many of the counties in western Oregon. The counties can’t tax the millions of acres of federal forests, but still must provide services they cannot afford: such as fighting wildfires, searching for and rescuing tourists and maintaining access roads.
“Counties can’t budget for services without any assurances from Congress that there will be money coming in,” McVay said.
McVay and the association filed a formal protest of the new plan.
The Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association joined it, saying the plan “will continue to place these counties in a fiscal crisis.”
John Bishop, executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association and former sheriff of Curry County, said in an interview that the counties’ financial crisis is a direct result of government policies that made Oregon’s timber industry wither.
“When 65 percent of your land is federal land and you don’t get any money for it, and you’re still patrolling that area and providing search and rescue, and the BLM is once again failing the communities where these public lands are located, there’s not much hope,” Bishop said.
Rural Oregon communities have been reluctant to raise taxes on their small populations, and voters have refused to approve tax increases to fund schools and police.
Rural Oregon counties have been “driven to the brink of insolvency” by the eviscerated logging revenue, the association claims. Some counties, including Curry and Josephine, say they cannot afford round-the-clock emergency services.
“You may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services,” the Josephine County Sheriff’s Department told the county’s 80,000 residents in a memorable statement in 2012, after budget cuts forced it to cut back to six deputies.
On week ago, Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center filed a protest with the BLM on behalf of 22 conservation and fishing groups who claim the new plan would increase logging by 37 percent, roll back important streamside protections and emphasize clear-cutting, which has deadly effects on fish.
Increasing logging while decreasing the land that can be logged can only mean clear-cuts, the groups says.
Many of the groups that joined the protest were involved in the process that resulted in the new plan, commenting on draft proposals and filing lawsuits that scuttled earlier versions.
That doesn’t mean the groups are happy.
“Clear-cutting kills fish,” Joseph Vaile of the southern Oregon-based KS Wild [Karuk-Siskiyou Wildlands Center] said in a statement. “We don’t need more clear-cuts. We need common-sense management that protects our water sources, stores carbon in ancient forests, and keeps the public at the table.”
Environmentalists and fishing groups joined forces to protest the plan.
Glen Spain with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations said the plan would endanger revenue from fishing tourism.
“The last, best salmon habitat in Oregon is within these BLM-managed forests,” Spain said in a statement. “Productive salmon streams are far more valuable for the salmon-related jobs they create than for the market value of the lumber you could generate from logging them. Stronger stream protection makes excellent economic sense; logging them does not.”
No Compromise With the Law
Mark Brown, the BLM project manager in charge of implementing the new plan, says the agency is trying to allow as much timber to be harvested as possible while protecting endangered species such as the spotted owl.
Environmental protection and updated science brought what may be the plan’s biggest change: the decision to protect nearly all of the old-growth forest the BLM controls in western Oregon. Brown said environmental science shows the spotted owl needs “older, more structurally complex forest” to survive.
The other major change would commit the BLM to a volume of logging it says rural counties will be able to count on for decades to come. Brown said that’s a little more than half of the 500 million board-feet the BLM is authorized to produce annually.
Todd True, managing attorney for the Seattle office of Earthjustice, said in an interview 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.”
True said the new plan is a departure from the past two decades of limited logging under the Northwest Forest Plan.
“The history of those forests is, they were logged very hard,” True said. “Those forests have been coming back. They are healing now and they need to continue to heal. This is an effort by BLM to walk away from the Northwest Forest Plan. And that’s not supported by science and it’s against the law. We think the Northwest Forest Plan is working. And why the BLM wants to walk away from it is a mystery.”
Brown said the BLM’s responsibility is to follow the law, not craft a compromise.
“We’re not trying to strike a middle road,” Brown said. “What we’re doing is fulfilling all our legal responsibilities. Providing a sustained yield of timber includes complying with the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. If we don’t take those into account, then we find ourselves in the situation where we can’t provide the board-feet we promised because of litigation.”
To resolve the disputes, the BLM will consider the objections, consult with scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and seek approval from Gov. Kate Brown to make sure it’s consistent with state and local laws.
Brown said the counties have to adapt to changing economics instead of using timber receipts as a life raft.
“The Bureau of Land Management can be a part of the solution for local communities, but we can’t solve all their problems,” Brown said.
The forest in western Oregon managed by the BLM is dwarfed by that under the control of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages about three times the western Oregon forest acres as the BLM.
The Forest Service is working on its own update of the Northwest Forest Plan, drafting its first large-scale revision. And the many stakeholders already are lining up for what could be an even bigger fight.
“I don’t think environmentalists are going to be happy until it’s all shut down,” Sheriff Bishop said. “That’s how fervent they believe. They won’t be happy until it’s all shut down.”
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