With some low-population Southern Oregon counties on the verge of insolvency, the Oregon congressional delegation seems determined to get more money-producing timber harvests off the 2.4 million acres of federal Bureau of Land Management forests in Western Oregon.
Their actions — including the advance of a sweeping logging bill in the House — has made timber executives, environmentalists and rural residents all anxious, because nobody knows whether the bill will become law, and if it does what it will look like.
All the hard-fought rules governing logging on federal land in the Pacific Northwest for the past 30 years are up in the air.
Some provisions in House Bill 1526 would take Oregon’s O&C lands back to the peak logging of up to 1.6 billion board feet a year during the 1980s, before a string of court cases found that the harvest was breaking environmental laws and dropped the cut by 90 percent.
The sweeping bill would jeopardize salmon, spotted owls, old growth and watersheds — including those where most Oregonians draw their drinking water, said Sean Stevens, executive director of the Oregon Wild environmental group.
“It really is the worst attack on public lands across the country in a generation,” he said.
But county officials and timber executives fear provisions that would allow environmentalists to defeat the purpose of HB 1526 and keep the cut below 200 million board feet a year — leaving not enough logs for the mills or cash for the counties.
In the House, the O&C plan is being championed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield.
In the Senate, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is working on a parallel but unspecified bill. He said his measure would ensure the logging and suppress the litigation on the 2.4 million acres of Oregon BLM forests known as the O&C — short for Oregon & California — lands.
“The Oregon delegation is absolutely determined to fix this O&C situation. The alternative to not passing legislation is just completely unacceptable,” Oregon’s senior senator said. “If a bill doesn’t pass, a bad situation gets worse. I’m not waiting for that catastrophe.”
The O&C lands spread out across rural parts of Western Oregon in a checkerboard — from Columbia County to the north to the Oregon-California border to the south.
The lands exist as they are because in 1866, Congress gave the Oregon & California Railroad every other mile-square section of land, so the railroad could sell the land to settlers to finance construction of the rail line. Later, the lands reverted to the government.
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