Western Oregon’s BLM’s forests are once again the subject of great political debate. Just a few years ago, the Bush administration put forward a plan to massively increase old growth logging on these lands. This plan was stopped in its tracks by President Obama in early 2009.
Since then, the BLM has focused primarily are relatively non-controversial forest restoration work, producing significant wood volume from thinning younger forests and generally staying away from old growth clearcutting.
Now, with the expiration of federal ‘county payments,’ a new plan for western Oregon BLM lands and county payments is being put forward in Congress by Oregon Representatives DeFazio, Walden, and Schrader. While potentially creating new protections for older forests on these lands, this legislation would also significantly reduce environmental protections across one million acres, leading to more clearcuts, dirtier water, damaged salmon runs, and diminished recreational opportunities.
For months, the Congressmen have been talking up their plan, securing support from newspaper editorial boards across the state, local county government leaders, and the timber industry. However, other than broad outlines of what they hope the bill would do, there are no specifics, as their legislation has not been introduced yet. As the saying goes: ‘the devil is in the details.’
The primary focus of the plan is to divide over 2 million acres of western Oregon BLM forests into two ‘trusts.’ One trust would ostensibly be for older forest protection. The other trust would be for intensive timber production to provide revenue to counties. In order to meet revenue targets on one million acres of timber trust lands, forest protections would be weakened significantly and the land would be managed similarly to the intensive, large-scale clearcutting seen on private industrial forestlands across western Oregon. The timber trusts would be managed by a board appointed by the Governor, that would likely include significant involvement from the timber industry whose focus is producing logs for their mills, not protecting salmon or clean water. Because of the significant shift in management, the timber trusts would amount to defacto privatization of one million acres of western Oregon public lands.
As far as the trust for older forests, it is still not clear whether it would involve permanent protection from logging, or temporary protection, and what kind of logging may be allowed for ‘forest health’ and other loopholes. The Congressman have publicly talked about adding in two western Oregon BLM wilderness areas totaling about 90,000 acres as well, but environmental groups have argued these wilderness areas should be voted on separately, not passed in a bill that includes weakening protections for forests and streams across 1 million acres of public land.
The Sierra Club believes that Congress should provide counties with secure annual funding and we have supported an extension of federal county payments. We also believe that Congress should pass legislation to permanently protect older forests and new wilderness areas on public lands in western Oregon. However, we strongly believe these efforts should not be tied reduced environmental protections on other public lands, that will lead to increased clearcutting, damage to salmon streams and clean water, or defacto privatization of public forests.
In order to demonstrate that realistic alternatives to increasing logging on public lands exist to help western Oregon counties meet their funding needs, the Sierra Club and several other organizations recently released a Shared Responsibility plan to help solve the the political crisis over this issue. The Shared Responsibility plan would involve all levels of Government – federal, state and county – providing 1/3 of the funding necessary to help meet the gaps left with the expiration of county payments.
Under the Shared Responsibility plan, the federal Government could provide its share through the administrative savings associated with transferring management of western Oregon BLM lands to the Forest Service. The federal government would also likely maintain some level of payments to counties in lieu of taxes.
The state could provide its share through the legislature making a modest increase in the Forest Products Harvest Tax. The state current taxes all timber produced in the state at an extremely low rate and industrial timber companies pay extremely low property taxes. Even a small increase of the Forest Products Harvest Tax could raise significant revenue and help the state capture a sliver of the profits associated with the boom in whole, raw log exports to Asia from industrial forest lands in recent years.
The counties could provide their share through small local tax changes, including slight increases in property taxes (many of the worst hit counties enjoy the lowest property tax rates in the state, less than half the state average in some cases), or other local taxing opportunities. If the federal and state government’s provide their shares, counties will have less of a gap to fill with local taxes than they currently do. And if county voters will not support increased local taxes to fund roads and schools, local cuts will not have to be as severe assuming the state and federal government provide their shares.
While these issue are complex and there is no ‘silver bullet,’ by working together and developing new ideas such as those presented in the Shared Responsibility plan, Oregon can solve this county funding problem. Plans based solely on increasing federal lands logging to fund counties have failed in the past – the drive to maximize revenue from federal lands in the 1980’s nearly pushed many salmon runs and other species to extinction, without providing long-tern stability for local governments – and they will fail again.