U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio is floating a proposal for logging and preservation in Western Oregon’s federal forests that he says could mean a stable source of funding for the Oregon counties that historically have depended upon timber revenue from the federal lands.
Like anything to do with the 2.2 million acres of Oregon forests administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, it’s controversial, but the current legal logjam has many looking for a new direction.
The most recent management strategy for these lands — the Western Oregon Plan Revision, or WOPR — is bogged down in competing lawsuits with environmentalists arguing that it doesn’t meet federal requirements while the timber industry alleges that it doesn’t allow enough logging.
With federal payments to counties set to end this year and unlikely to be renewed by a Congress focused on deficit reduction, DeFazio thinks a whole new approach could gain traction, particularly if it puts money back in Congressional coffers.
The 4th District Democrat wants to divide the BLM lands in half, putting the pieces into separate trusts, one managed for timber revenue and the other for environmental values.
It’s an idea first floated in 2006 by Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and a longtime environmental activist.
In a nutshell: Each trust would be administered by a three-member board of trustees selected by the secretary of the interior based on recommendations by Oregon elected officials.
The six trustees would decide how to divvy up the land before settling in to manage the separate trusts, Stahl said.
“Each is trying to accomplish a different but complimentary set of objectives,” he said. “The timber trust wants to make sure the land in the timber trust can actually be logged in real life without people sitting in the trees in protest, and the environmental trust wants to make sure the land it protects is worthy of protection.”
The timber trust lands could be leased to a private company — a long-term 99-year lease with the investor paying an upfront fee; $3 billion is the figure being batted around. That money would be invested, with the annual interest going to Oregon counties, DeFazio said.
An 8 percent return on $3 billion comes to $240 million, close to what the counties got in federal payments in 2006, Stahl said.
Some money from that initial $3 billion could go back to Congress to cover the cost of extending county payments one more year while the trust proposal is put in place, DeFazio said.
The new management plan would save the BLM about $110 million annually, what it now costs the agency to manage Western Oregon forests, DeFazio said.
The separate trusts could put an end to the endless squabbling over the appropriate use of forests that in 1937 Congress designated as an income stream for the 18 Oregon counties where the forests are located.
“We need long-term stable funding for essential county services, and if we can establish a trust that would provide for that, it would be most attractive in the current environment in Washington,” DeFazio said.
The concept intrigues Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart.
“It could be a win-win situation for everybody,” Stewart said. “It won’t return some of our historic payments, but it will bring some money in and some assurance — for both the counties and also for industry — to know that the resource is available to them and they can make commitments and investments.”
But not all county commissioners are ready to jump on board DeFazio’s proposal.
The Association of O&C Counties — the 18 counties where the BLM forests are located — have floated their own trust idea, said Doug Robertson, Douglas County Commissioner and president of the association.
They propose a single trust with a board composed of members from the timber industry and the environmental community managing the landscape with a range of minimum and maximum harvest levels that must be met annually. Putting the land into a trust would remove it from federal management, Robertson said.
BLM lands now proposed for wilderness designation would be off the table for logging as well as scenic lands along the coast and along Highway 97 in the scenic Klamath Falls area, Robertson said.
The rest of the forests would be managed under current Oregon State Forestry Act regulations that govern privately owned forests and that allow for extensive clear-cutting.
Stahl first proposed the state forestry regulations for the timber trust lands, but DeFazio rejects them as too controversial. A pilot project underway on BLM lands in the Roseburg and Medford districts offers a better template for logging practices, DeFazio said.
“I don’t think we would be able to garner support nationally and certainly not locally under Oregon forest practices,” he said.
Robertson dismisses the two-trust idea as too complex.
The BLM lands are a checkerboard of square-mile plots interspersed among private lands occupying the lower slopes of the Coast and Cascade ranges from Portland to the California border.
Some chunks of BLM forests have the whole range of age classes of trees, swaths of very young to very old trees, so figuring out how to divide them further would not be easy, Robertson said.
“You can’t simply say: ‘Anything over 120 years and up would go into this environmental trust.’ That alone would take an enormous amount of time and effort to identify,” he said.
Any bidder on the lease who has to pay $3 billion up front for the right to log will want to know exactly what they’re getting, and surveying all 1.1 million acres would be an expensive and time consuming effort, he said.
Stahl believes such an inventory would be much less difficult to accomplish. Just looking at past practice on the landscape would offer good guidance, he said.
“The best indication that land is irreplaceably sensitive, fragile or has things on it that we care about is that today it remains unlogged,” Stahl said. “I think these two boards of trustees will find it pretty simple to carve up these two trusts.”
A foundation has stepped up to do a detailed inventory of the BLM forests and that information should be available later this year, DeFazio said.
The old adversaries on the BLM lands, the timber industry and environmental groups, agree on one thing: the status quo isn’t working.
The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group that has sued the BLM over its current management plan, hasn’t weighed in yet on either the one-trust or the two-trust ideas, said AFRC President Tom Partin.
“We appreciate that the congressman has taken a lot of time, gone out and looked at these lands ... and really formed a valuable perspective on what should be done,” Partin said. “The current management scheme just isn’t working and the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the county payments that are going to run out this year.”
Oregon Wild, an environmental group that is part of different a lawsuit against the BLM’s current logging plan, agrees that something needs to be done.
“Oregon Wild would support efforts to permanently protect mature and old-growth forests in Western Oregon, and the counties need a fair solution to their funding issues,” said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator for the nonprofit organization. “However, it’s unwise to save the counties at the expense of our forests and our environmental laws. We can’t afford to divide the forest up one more time. We’ve ‘split the baby’ too many times already,” he said.
Oregon Wild suggests establishing an endowment fund to provide revenues to the counties while turning over the BLM lands to the U.S. Forest Service — a solution that would save the government millions in administration costs.
While DeFazio will be talking up the idea in town meetings throughout his district, Stahl thinks the two-trust solution will get traction only if it also has the backing of two other key lawmakers: Sen. Ron Wyden, and Rep. Greg Walden, the 2nd District Republican whose district includes three of the affected counties.
“If you got those three people to agree on a legislative proposal, then it has a pretty good chance of ending up on Mr. Obama’s desk,” Stahl said.