Oregon's senior U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, who chairs the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote an op-ed piece for the March 19 edition of the Oregonian that leaves me speechless. In it, he calls for a "permanent solution to the decades-long fight over managing the Oregon & California Railroad lands that run like a crazed checkerboard across the state."
The "permanent solution" Senator Wyden seeks already exists. It is called the O&C Lands Act, and it was ratified by Congress in 1937. No less an august body than the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has twice ruled that the unambiguous Act means exactly what it says - and what it says is that the revested O&C Railroad lands in western Oregon are to be managed for timber for the economic benefit of western Oregon's 18 O&C Counties.
The O&C forests do not "run like a crazed checkerboard across the state." They are in western Oregon, almost a day's drive from eastern Oregon. There are big forests in eastern Oregon, too, but they mixed conifer and pine, not Douglas-firmonocultures planted by man or nature in western Oregon.
The "forest health" crisis Senator Wydenreferences is mostly in eastern Oregon. That region's forests are in crisis because they hold far too many trees to sustain themselves. Short of a long term, landscape scale thinning program, which environmentalists oppose, they will continue to die and burn in horrific stand replacing wildfires. These federally-owned forests are managed by the Forest Service. The O&C lands in western Oregon have been managed by the Bureau of Land Management since its creation in 1946, through the merger of the General Land Office and the U.S. Grazing Service.
The historically-rich O&C Railroad story dates to the early 1900s, which is pretty much the dawn of science-based forestry in the Douglas-fir region. You can read all about the so-called "Billion Dollar Checkerboard" at several web links. Here are just a few:
I applaud Senator Wyden for wanting to increase the miserly and unsustainable harvest on O&C timberlands. Yes, I said "unsustainable." Leaving these fabulously wealthy timberlands to "nature" is a death sentence. What is not harvested for human use and necessity will eventually be destroyed by insects, diseases and stand replacing wildfire. Such is the ecology of fire in the Douglas-fir region.
Senator Wyden is correct in his acknowledgement of the terrible economic harm done to this region's timber communities by "lawyers and judges," but he is wrong in his claim that O&C forests were being unsustainably managed before the lawyers and judges got involved. Through time, the sum total of harvest and natural mortality has never exceeded forest growth on O&C lands. This is the classic definition of forest sustainability, also known as sustained yield forest management, a driving force behind the 1937 O&C Act.
Of course, when you take productive timberland out of production - which Congress has been doing for nearly 50 years, annual harvest must be re-balanced against annual growth and mortality on a smaller and smaller pieces of real estate. Numerous federal laws, most notably the 1970 Endangered Species Act, have put enormous downward pressure on timber harvesting on federal, state, private, and tribal trust timberlands all over the United States, but, again, most notably in the West where the federal forest management debate has been concentrated since the 1960s.
Understandably, Senator Wyden would like to buy a little time in his quest to find a more permanent solution to the economic crisis that swept over the rural west after the spotted owl was listed in 1990. He's well aware of the fact that there is little chance that Congress will fund the Secure Rural Schools program in perpetuity, certainly not with the country so deeply in debt and so many more populous regions [think voters] teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
Since 2000, the Secure Rural Schools Act, which Wyden helped write, has provided some $2.8 billion in defacto welfare payments to Oregon counties. The intent was to temporarily replace harvest revenue sharing money that county governments were receiving before the northern spotted owl was listed and the federal timber sale program collapsed. The underlying goal was to give the counties sufficient time to find new revenue sources - presumably new businesses to replace thesawmilling and logging jobs that were lost when the owl was listed.
For a time it was believed that tourism would rescue beleaguered counties. In fact, numerous studies advanced by economists employed by environmentalists predicted that tourists would ride to the rescue of the West's once robust lumber communities. Hasn't happened - and won't. Tourism is seasonal and the jobs it provides, though better than nothing, don't pay well. Technology jobs pay much better, but I don't expect we'll see a mass exodus from the Silicon Valley anytime soon. All those trees in western Oregon are lovely, but it's a long way between Starbucks, and you can't eat the scenery.
With the Obama Administration's clamor for "green jobs," one would think that growing, harvesting and replanting trees would show up on someone's radar screen. But the same political class that made the spotted owl the poster child for their campaign to "save" old growth [it can't be done] has also done its damndest to prevent Congress from including renewable wood fiber in "green energy" legislation.
Wind energy is great , though not with bird lovers, who call rotating windmill blades "Cuisinarts in the sky;" and certainly not fine with affluent Nantucket greenies who don't want unsightly floating windmills screwing up their yachting adventures. The sun's rays are fine, too, but water and desert "conservation" groups don't want solar panels anywhere near them. They are unsightly and they use lots of water. But with no grizzly bears or spotted owls in the neighborhood, they've had rely on less charismatic species, like the desert tortoise, to stop development of large scale, economically viable solar farms.
I am not sure how Senator Wyden will navigate the political and regulatory minefield created by the Endangered Species Act and the decades of regulatory "reform" that have been embedded in it, but I don't think it is possible to win by first declaring defeat. But he seems to think he can bring warring "stakeholders" together around the idea that harvesting on O&C timberlands can be increased to some higher, yet still sustainable level. Good for him. But for the record, the word "stakeholder" is nowhere to be found in the 1937 O&C Act, which speaks directly to congressional intent in the 18 O&C counties.
Furthermore, one need not be a "stakeholder" to crash Senator Wyden's party. Any malcontent can do it. All you need is a good lawyer who knows that, win or lose, he can collect his fees from taxpayers who are on the hook for court costs under the congressionally-blessed Equal Access to Justice Act. Until Mr. Wyden and his Senate colleagues take a flamethrower to this rat's nest, nothing will change on the O&C lands, despite the unambiguous intent of the 1937 O&C Act.
Read the original text at Evergreen Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Michael Richardson.