Debate On Oregon Forest Plan Produces Sparks

EarthFix | Feb. 8, 2012 12:16 a.m.

Oregon Public Broadcasting

MEDFORD – The imminent loss of federal support to Oregon’s forested counties to replace timber receipts of the past is fueling a spirited debate about increasing logging in those counties.

Sparks from that debate were on display Tuesday night during a forum hosted by Southern Oregon Public Television andEarthFix, a regional collaboration of public media in the Northwest.

“Local Focus: Dollars and Trees” brought together a diverse panel, including Steve Swanson, president of the Swanson Group, which mills lumber and plywood in Oregon, and Eugene-based environmentalist Doug Heiken of Oregon Wild.

Some of the forum’s sharpest exchanges came as panelists debated legislation being drawn up by a bipartisan trio in Oregon’s congressional delegation proposing allow more logging on a portion of western Oregon forests now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Receipts from those timber harvests eventually help replace revenues that are being cut off this year as the Secure Rural Schools Act support is expiring this year. Last month, the Bureau of Land Management issued the final payments, totaling more than $40 million, to 18 western Oregon counties.

Oregon counties are losing $230 million because of the end of payments under the program.

Heiken, Oregon Wild’s conservation and restoration coordinator, said such an approach would mark a return to what he called the failed practice of “using forests as a piggy bank.”

“We polluted our streams. We drove species to the brink of extinction,” he said. “That’s just not going to work.

Swanson countered that the proposal advocated by DeFazio and his congressional colleagues should make conservation advocates like Heiken happy. He pointed to one provision of the not-yet-introduced legislation, which identify portions of the BLM for designation and protection as old-growth forest.

“Doug’s group should love the fact that we’re going to add a million acres to a de facto wilderness,” Swanson said.

Of the remaining forestland, some would be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service and the rest would be placed under control of a trust, which would make tracts available for logging.

Swanson acknowledged that presently, demand for lumber is low, given the still-moribund housing sector is suppressing the market for building materials. But he said new housing starts are bound to climb as the economic recovery takes hold.


Oregon Wild/Erik Fernandez

And when that happens, he said, “there will be a huge demand for lumber in this country and that’s going to be made somewhere.”

Heiken that while there are some components of DeFazio’s legislation his group likes, it’s simply premature to return to the practice of heavily logging over forests that are just starting to mature so they can protect clean water and provide habitat for wildlife.

“We think some of those young forests still need to be restored,” he said. “You’re talking about increasing clearcutting on a million acres of public land. That’s a big deal.”

Swanson disputed the idea that DeFazio and his congressional colleagues are pushing for the liquidation of BLM forestland, saying the plan wouldn’t supply enough timber to his company’s five mills one year.

“Well,” Heiken shot back, “maybe your mills are too big.”

The program’s two other panelists, Richard Whitman, who advises Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on natural resources policy, and Jackson County Commissioner Dennis C.W. Smith, focused attention on the fiscal straits counties are finding themselves in as federal assistance vanishes.

Smith said counties that have grown dependent on that money to replace lost timber revenues are “up against a brick wall,” and that options such as raising local property taxes are limited in part because of the state’s constitutional cap on tax rates.

Whitman said that while the replacement of lost federal support to Oregon’s forest counties is a top priority for his boss and the Legislature, the state’s ability to assist them is limited by its own budgetary woes.

(Video produced by Amelia Templeton. Text by David Steves.)

This story originally appeared through the EarthFix public media collaboration.

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