Wyden’s eastside forest bill not protective enough

Click here to read the Sierra Club’s testimony before the Senate’s
Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee in Bend on June 4, 2010.

By Larry Pennington / Bulletin guest columnist
Published in the Bend Bulletin, June 3, 2010

Last December’s introduction by Sen. Ron Wyden of the Oregon Eastside Forest Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act of 2009 initiated a discussion of how best to accomplish forest and wildlife restoration and create jobs in Oregon. While there are honest differences of opinion about the bill among many interests and organizations, we are all dedicated to making Oregon a better place to live.

The Sierra Club strongly believes that science should be the basis for forest health policy, and we believe the best comprehensive scientific evaluation of east-side forests is the 1994 Eastside Scientific Panel’s report to the president and Congress. While Sen. Wyden’s bill incorporates some of the report’s recommendations, such as protecting large-diameter old-growth trees, it is silent on several of its key components. In short, the bill does not adequately protect roadless areas, riparian areas and important old-growth stands from many harmful logging impacts. It focuses too heavily on producing sawlogs for mills while mandating annual acreage targets that far exceed those necessary to maintain forest health, extending these activities into healthy backcountry forests where there is no imminent threat to human communities by wildfire. Too much emphasis on mechanical activities that remove large amounts of sawlogs and biomass from the forest can actually set back restoration goals by causing lasting damage to soils and water quality, increasing fire risk, and impeding the recovery of threatened fish and wildlife.

The Sierra Club believes there is a better way to restore our forests and provide jobs for Oregonians. Economists are increasingly realizing that our forests have value as sources of clean water, clean air, salmon and wildlife habitat, recreation, and carbon storage. Further, the recent boom-and-bust cycle of the housing market and lack of demand for timber reminds us that focusing on increasing logging as the primary way to create jobs in rural Oregon is not the way to rebuild resilient rural economies. A 2009 study published by the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program demonstrated that non-timber-oriented watershed and road restoration work, and other labor intensive restoration activities such as manual thinning, tree planting and brush removal, can produce more jobs per million dollars invested than more mechanized and logging-focused restoration activities.

In short, the focus of a bill designed to create jobs through restoration should be on deliberately creating a diversity of restoration jobs by setting benchmarks for improving fish passage, restoring degraded riparian areas, reducing the dense road network, removing invasive species, and replanting and thinning where appropriate using sustainable, labor-intensive, light-on-the-land practices. Within the wildland-urban interface, we must focus on thinning and removing brush and small diameter trees. Outside of those interfaces, we should recognize and manage fire as a natural forest process, while addressing the crumbling road network and restoring depleted fish runs.

In addition to the need for the bill to focus on the broad spectrum of forest restoration needs, we recommend the following additional changes to Sen. Wyden’s bill that will help ensure implementation of more scientifically supported restoration approaches: eliminate annual mandated acreage targets and allow science to guide such acreage based on site-specific forest health and species recovery needs; incorporate all recommendations of the 1994 Eastside Scientific Panel Report; better define and depoliticize the selection of the new scientific panel created by the legislation; remove the precedent-setting prohibition on resolving disagreements through administrative appeal, since we believe this will result in more litigation, not less; strengthen riparian protection by making the requirements to protect buffers along fish-bearing streams the mandatory minimum; avoid construction of so-called “temporary” roads, since the environmental impacts of such roads are not temporary on forest and watershed health; and require decommissioning any “temporary” roads as an intrinsic part of restoration projects, not a hoped-for later add-on.

Our fellow conservation organizations in Oregon do great work, and we all see the benefits of that work as we travel our east-of-the-Cascades Oregon home. Some fully support Sen. Wyden’s legislation, while others recognize there are key problems that need to be fixed in order for it to accomplish its stated restoration goals and not tip the scales toward more unsustainable logging. While the Sierra Club has concerns that are causing us to recommend key changes to the bill, we are dedicated to working with any and all who promote a healthy environment and making central and eastern Oregon a better place to live and work.

Larry Pennington, of Crooked River Ranch, is chair of the Oregon Chapter Sierra Club’s east-side forest subcommittee.

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