U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., says 2013 has been the worst wildfire season in Oregon since 1951 — more than $120 million was spent on suppression activities — and that is a major reason to allow managed harvests in federally owned forests.
“Nationwide, instead of managing our forests, we let 9.3 million acres burn, which is 44 times as many acres as we were once responsibly harvesting,” he said during a Sept. 20 teleconference with media representatives.
He had scheduled the call with reporters around the state to announce House passage of a forestry bill that is viewed by supporters as an economic “lifeline” for rural communities. The legislation that would allow bug-infested, diseased and overstocked stands of trees to be logged is expected to create more than 68,000 direct and 140,000 indirect jobs.
“This is a momentous day for Oregonians, for our forests and for our forest communities,” said Walden, whose Second Congressional District includes Wasco and Hood River counties. “I honestly believe this will turn the tide in rural Oregon over time and help us get back on our feet.”
He acknowledged that it is going to be a political fight to get House Resolution 1526 approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama, whose administration has already threatened a veto.
Environmental groups, such as Oregon Wild, are also strongly opposed to the legislation, calling it a reversal of hard-won ecosystem protection measures.
“This is where we need everyone in Oregon to stand up and support us — to make their voices heard,” said Walden. “We’ve never been in a better position to move forward and get this done — this is the time.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has expressed concern about some aspects of the bill and vowed to come up with his own version. He disagrees with the House plan to place 1.6 million acres of land once owned by the defunct Oregon & California Railroad into a trust managed by the state. Since 1937, the 18 counties that fell under federal ownership after the bankruptcy of O&C have received half the revenues from timber cut on 2.4 million acres of land.
Wyden, who supports limited logging on public lands, likened the O&C proposal in HB 1526 to a privatization plan for federal lands that would put them beyond the reach of federal environmental laws.
Tom Towslee, state communications director for Wyden, said Monday: “Sen. Wyden agrees that it’s time to get the harvest up, to create more jobs in the woods and make forests healthier. He’s working on a plan to do that in O&C counties in Western Oregon that he plans to introduce this fall. However, it’s clear that bills that undermine bedrock environmental laws or turn large swaths of federal land over to private ownership cannot pass the Senate or be signed into law by the president.”
House Resolution 1526 was sponsored by Walden and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, both Democrats from Oregon. The bill was authored by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.
The premise of the bill, said Walden, is to restore a promise made to rural counties by Congress in 1908. Because federal properties, which comprise 53.1 percent of Oregon’s land mass, could not provide a tax base, host counties were told they would receive a 25 percent share of timber receipts from logging. Through a series of environmental regulations that began in the 1970s, harvest levels dropped dramatically and eventually came to an almost complete standstill.
Safety-net legislation to provide these counties, including Wasco and Hood River, with compensation to make up for the revenue loss was enacted in 2000 and extended several times before expiring in 2012.
HB 1526 requires the Forest Service to provide at least half of the sustainable yield of timber each year in areas identified for commercial harvest, and share 25 percent of harvest receipts with rural counties to help fund schools and infrastructure projects.
Walden said in addition to DeFazio and Schrader, 15 other Democrats joined with 227 Republicans to approve the bill because of its “common sense” approach to forest management. He said the legislation strikes a balance between preserving resources and providing job opportunities.
“I hope the senate will see that we forged an Oregon solution here that crosses party lines,” he said.
He said the bill saves taxpayer dollars by reducing the needs to spend millions upon millions each year fighting wildfires, a price tag that rose as high as $2 billion in 2012. Because of those costs, Walden said the U.S. Forest Service that once averaged more than $1 billion in revenue annually is now spending $2 for every $1 it produces.
“Timber production from federal forests in Eastern Oregon is down 90 percent over the last 30 years,” said Walden. “We need to put people back to work in our national forests across the country by cutting through red tape, reducing litigation and letting Oregonians do what they do best, managing our renewable resources.”
He said more than 300 mills and 30,000 mill jobs have been lost in Oregon during the past three decades. Largely as a result of federal policies, he said nine of the counties he represents have double-digit unemployment and 16 have 14 percent or more of their population living in poverty.
He said 14 of the counties in the Second Congressional District have at least half of their children on the free or reduced lunch program at schools because their parents are unemployed or underemployed. For that reason, 26 counties in the state, including Wasco County, sent letters of support for the legislation.
The Sept. 4 letter submitted by the Wasco County Commissioners was sent to Hastings and DeFazio, ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings. It was copied to Walden, Wyden, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., state Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, and state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.
“In America’s national forests, money and jobs do grow on trees,” states the letter signed by Rod Runyon, commission chair, and Commissioners Scott Hege and Steve Kramer.
“A failed federal forest management system has led to the loss of thousands of family-wage jobs and has left our rural forested counties with a host of preventable social and economic problems that need to be addressed; action is long overdue. For most Oregon counties, the only solution is to return to a sustainable harvest level that provides reliable family-wage jobs and provides a solid tax base to support crucial services.”
Walden remains hopeful that conversations with senators from areas of the country with large tracts of federal land will change the political winds in Washington, D.C.
“Things are out of control,” he said. “Some of our counties are on the brink of bankruptcy — we have communities dissolving before our eyes. If we don’t get this done I don’t know how it plays out but it’s not going to be a good ending.”