From: Michael Milstein, The Oregonian
Published November 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Lands Could Reopen to Logging

A deal between the Bush administration and timber industry probably will restart chain saws across millions of acres of Western Oregon in the next few years, including reserves set aside for the northern spotted owl and other wildlife.


It will mark perhaps the single largest and most striking shift in public land management in the Northwest since the Clinton administration's 1994 Northwest Forest Plan created those reserves in the first place.


Conservationists fear it will begin the permanent unraveling of those reserves, a key piece of the strategy to sustain the spotted owl, marbled murrelet and salmon.


But it gives the Bush administration one of its best chances to deliver on its goal of boosting Northwest logging. It comes at an opportune time for Oregon counties, too, because federal funding they received in place of declining timber revenue is about to expire.


The federal deficit and costs of the Iraq war and hurricane recovery make renewal of the funding more iffy and logging revenue more sought-after.


The sea change will come through a new federal blueprint for management of 2.5 million acres of Western Oregon, much of it lush forest in a checkerboard pattern between Interstate 5 and the ocean. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has begun asking for public input as it drafts the new plan for release in 2008.


BLM State Director Elaine Brong said the revision will be completed openly with local involvement. It will consider new strategies for spreading logging over wider areas to lessen its impact, she said.


"If we're going to come up with the right answer, it's got to be done here," she said.


But the revision itself was a key part of a 2003 legal settlement between the timber industry and Bush administration. The deal points BLM toward doing away with reserves set aside to promote older forest and the wildlife that uses it.


A clause in the deal hints at how sharply things may change. It directs BLM to abide by a 1990 court ruling that said timber production should be the "dominant use" of the lands -- and a higher priority than wildlife habitat and old-growth forest.


"The timber industry is really the top consideration, obviously," said Francis Eatherington of the environmental group Umpqua Watersheds.


Special class of land


Most of the land involved, an area larger than most national forests, falls into a special class of acreage known as O&C lands. They get their name from an 1866 giveaway of federal land known as the Oregon and California Railroad land grant.


The idea was that the railroad company would sell the land to finance construction of a north-south railroad between the states.


But when the Southern Pacific Railroad held on to the land instead of selling it, the government grew frustrated and took back much of the acreage. It no longer was conventional public land, though. Congress gave it special direction more pointed than "multiple-use" acreage such as national forests, where the government must balance environmental and commercial demands.


Congress said the O&C lands would be managed for "permanent forest production," with trees logged at a sustainable rate "for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities."


The BLM sold up to 1.6 billion board feet of timber a year -- enough to fill more than 300,000 log trucks. Half the revenue goes to the county where the timber is sold, while the other half is split between the federal treasury and the BLM.


The county share has made the most timber-rich counties advocates of logging on the O&C lands, often through a group called the Association of O&C Counties.


When environmental activists went to court to scale back logging, the O&C counties joined in to defend the government's approach. An appeals court ruled that there is no room to reserve any areas from logging to provide wildlife habitat.


Congress never intended "that wildlife habitat conservation or conservation of old growth forest is a goal on a par with timber production, or indeed that it is a goal of the O&C Act at all," the court concluded.


But the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, crafted by the Clinton administration to save the spotted owl while allowing some continued logging, outlined a network of reserves across 24.5 million acres of the Northwest -- including the O&C lands. The trouble is that the plan has never delivered the timber it projected, and logging on O&C lands has fallen roughly 90 percent since the late 1980s.


About four of every five dollars dedicated to timber work is spent on administrative procedures and legal battles, Brong said, and Congress is frustrated with the lack of action.


"There's very little action on the ground where we can show progress, even for conservation," she said.


"What's currently going on is not very good because there's no management going on," said Doug Robertson, a county commissioner in Douglas County, the largest recipient of O&C timber money. Current cutting levels of about 135 million board feet a year are "just ridiculous," he said.


Because logging fell so sharply, Congress stepped in with funding for counties left short of money. But that expires in 2007, and counties are pushing for an extension against the odds of a deficit swollen by war and hurricane costs.


After President Bush took office with a tone friendlier to the timber industry, the industry group American Forest Resource Council sued the administration, saying the O&C lands should not be included in the reserves.


In a settlement with industry and the counties, the Bush administration promised to have the BLM revise the management plan for the O&C lands. The BLM must consider at least one option that does away with all wildlife reserves.


But the settlement also requires the BLM to follow the court rulings that concluded reserves have no place on O&C lands. That makes it likely that the BLM will get rid of the reserves, freeing up the land for logging.


"That's clearly the way it's going to need to go," said Robertson, a Republican.


He said logging of 1 billion board feet has proved sustainable in the past, and though cutting may not return to that level, it could be much higher than it is now. It would let managers better address problems such as crowded forests vulnerable to wildfire.


BLM officials emphasize that their decision must comply with other federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act, which protects the spotted owl and other species. They said they will examine strategies such as the one used for the Tillamook State Forest, which attempts to use logging to sculpt diverse forests across the landscape.


That approach, though, has had its own problems. It has faced intense criticism by conservationists and has not produced as much timber as coastal counties wanted.


Some county leaders say the logging push may go too far on O&C lands. Pete Sorenson, a Lane County commissioner and Democratic candidate for governor, said the timber industry is behind the activities of the Association of O&C Counties. He said the BLM may also be under pressure by the Bush administration to boost logging.


"What we have going on here is a struggle between those counties focused on trying to keep the cut up versus the knowledge that abusing the lands is fundamentally the wrong way to go," he said.


To see more of The Oregonian, or to subscribe the newspaper, go to http://www.oregonian.com.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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