Wyden bill would boost logging on O&C lands

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has unveiled his long-awaited bill to boost logging on federal lands in Western Oregon to help struggling timber counties.

The Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013 would double timber production from the so-called O&C lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to more than 300 million board feet.

But that is less than half the logging needed to fill a $35 million annual funding gap caused by the expiration of a federal safety net, Wyden's office said.

Wyden's bill would split the O&C lands in two, with half managed for timber production and half managed for conservation of old growth forests and fish and wildlife habitat.

The timber industry and conservation groups were disappointed in the bill and hoped to persuade Wyden to change it.

"At first glance, it appears that Sen. Wyden's proposal falls short of providing our communities the level of legal certainty, jobs and county revenues they deserve and have been promised," Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said in a statement.

Randi Spivak, public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the bill would harm forests, watersheds, fish and wildlife, and undo the delicate compromise of the Northwest Forest Plan.

"If Sen. Wyden proceeds with the bill as drafted it could re-ignite the Pacific Northwest timber wars," Spivak said.

Counties that depend on federal logging revenue provided by the O&C lands are not certain that Wyden's bill would provide a dependable supply of timber and logging revenue, said Doug Robertson, a Douglas County commissioner who heads the Association of O&C Counties.

So far, the counties have not seen a way to protect logging from legal challenges without turning the lands over to a trust for management under state logging rules, rather than federal environmental laws, he said.

The safety net made up for a steep decline in federal logging revenue that had been shared with counties after logging was cut by 90 percent on national forests in 1994 by the Northwest Forest Plan to protect salmon and the northern spotted owl.

Counties that relied on federal timber revenue have struggled to pay for jails and sheriff's patrols as voters resisted tax increases. Meanwhile, timber industry jobs declined through a combination of the logging cutbacks and automation.

"This approach will create a sturdier economic foundation for the O&C counties, centered on new middle-class jobs," from loggers and millworkers to sheriff's deputies and fishing guides, Wyden said in a statement. "It uses the best available science to mimic natural processes and create healthier, more diverse forests."

Wyden said he would introduce a companion bill to revive the safety net known as the Secure Rural Schools Act and payments in lieu of taxes.

Wyden's bill comes on the heels of similar legislation by members of Oregon's House delegation, which promises more timber but has brought a veto threat form the White House.

Both bills cover management of a patchwork of 2.1 million acres of federal lands in 18 Western Oregon counties that reverted to the federal government after the Oregon & California Railroad went bust.

Unlike U.S. Forest Service lands that share 25 percent of revenue with counties for roads and schools, the O&C lands share 50 percent, with no restrictions.

Unlike the House bill, Wyden's bill would leave the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in charge, rather than turning over control to a trust that would manage it under state logging rules.

Wyden's bill would expedite logging and reduce litigation by taking controversial old growth logging projects off the table, and adopting one environmental impact statement to cover 10 years of timber sales.

Wyden planned a news conference Tuesday in Salem with Gov. John Kitzhaber to discuss the plan.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chief architect of the House bill, said in a statement he had not seen Wyden's bill but looked forward to the Senate passing something that could be melded with the House bill to produce legislation that would be signed by the president.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press