"Most people think the Northwest forest war is over," says Andy Kerr, who attended Bill Clinton's 1993 Portland forest conference as a leader of the group that is now Oregon Wild, "but it isn't." A lot of the main action in that war has always taken place in Oregon.
As a last-minute gift to the forest products industry, the Bush administration came out with the Western Oregon Plan Revision (abbreviated as WOPR and pronounced "whopper"), which would have opened a lot of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in southern Oregon to increased logging. The O&C Act of 1937, which brought 2.5 million acres originally granted to the Oregon and California Railroad back into federal ownership, sends revenue from logging on those O&C lands to southern Oregon counties. But federal courts have long since ruled that Congress' Depression-era concern for the economies of those counties doesn't trump federal environmental law.
One court ruled in favor of WOPR. Another ruled against it. The Obama administration hasn't tried to follow up. The BLM continues to plan, as it pretty well has to. "They're recycling a lot of the data that underpinned the WOPR," Oregon Wild's conservation director Steve Pedery says, "but they're trying to do something legal this time."
Management of the O and C lands could have been settled by the forest plan, says Pedery, but Oregon's then-Sen. Mark Hatfield didn't want that to happen. Now, 20 years on, no one denies that Oregon's southern coastal counties are economically depressed. However, that's nothing new. Earthjustice attorney Kristen Boyles acknowledges that "the economic problems of [Oregon's] coastal logging communities are real [but] far predate the logging restrainst that have followed the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl."
Some communities in those counties are far more dependent on timber income than just about anywhere in Washington, says Conservation Northwest's science and conservation director, David Werntz. He suggests that on the O and C lands, we're "basically seeing a battle over the last remaining vestiges of a natural resource economy."
And even in depressed coastal counties, the benefits of increased logging may not exceed the costs. Before the Forest Plan went into effect, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that 44 planned BLM sales there would jeopardize recovery of the Northern Spotted Owl. The BLM appealed to the "God Squad," the Cabinet-level committee that can decide whether or not the economic benefits of an action that violates the Endangered Species Act would outweigh the environmental costs. This was one of the very few times the God Squad has been called into action. It let only 13 of the sales go forward. It decided that costs outweighed benefits on the other 31.
At the edge of a clear cut in Oregon's Coast Range (2010) M.O. Stevens/Wikimedia Commons
Two influential Oregon Democrats, Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, have introduced bills designed to pump more timber money into those counties and reshape the management of the O&C lands. DeFazio's bill has already passed the House. "Oregon’s rural communities cannot afford another 20 years of gridlock in our federal forests," DeFazio proclaims on his website. "Without a new path forward, mills will continue to disappear, forest jobs will be outsourced, counties will be pushed off the budgetary cliff, forest health will continue to decline, and irreplaceable old growth will be one court decision away from liquidation." Then, he explains, "After years of hard work and negotiation, we crafted the bipartisan 'O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act' (OCTCJA) and passed our plan on a bipartisan basis."
Many conservation groups don't see it that way. In fact, some are alarmed. Earthjustice's Boyles suggests that the DeFazio bill is "a basic King Solomon solution: split the baby down the middle." One half would essentially be handed over to the forest products industry — the legislation would establish a trust that would fund county governments and would in turn be funded by logging on nearly half the O and C land in south Oregon — the other reserved as natural habitat.
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