By Mark Salvo
Railroad companies interested in westward expansion in the 1800s benefited a great deal from the federal government. To spur development of rail lines, Congress incentivized investment in rail infrastructure by regularly granting railroad companies public land that they could then sell or develop along the routes they constructed.
Sometimes railroad companies failed to deliver on their part of the deal, however. In 1916, Congress determined that the Oregon and California (O&C) railroad project had failed to meet its commitments for rail development and reclaimed the lands it had given the company. These O&C lands now comprise about 2.1 million acres of federal forests in western Oregon. In 1937, Congress enacted the O&C Act directing the Department of the Interior to manage O&C lands for timber production, but also to protect watersheds, regulate streamflow and support recreation in these forests.
As decades passed, new technologies allowed for massive clearcutting of Northwestern forests, including on O&C lands. Huge volumes of timber came off public forests in the 1970s and 80s, which also produced huge amounts of revenue that was shared with the counties having O&C lands. But logging at that level was unsustainable, and by the early 90s this became all too clear as species like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, dependent on complex old-growth forests, showed precipitous declines—indicators of the ecological problems created by the elimination of ancient forests.
Old-growth logging and its environmental consequences ultimately became a political issue in the 1992 presidential election. Candidate Bill Clinton promised to do something about it, and soon after he was elected he convened a forest summit in the Northwest and created a science-based plan to conserve forest ecosystems, while still supporting a sustainable timber supply and rural jobs. O&C lands became a core part of the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP), and for the past twenty years have been managed under the plan’s standards and guidelines.
The NWFP was also paired with additional assistance to rural communities to provide job training and other measures to transition to a new economy, one less dependent on old-growth forest logging. These federal resources were of considerable benefit to individuals and communities who chose to avail themselves of them.
While forest management has measurably improved under the NWFP, problems still plague the region. Some O&C counties have failed to diversify their economies, and a number of timber mills have not adapted to the market conditions of 2013. In addition, federal money for counties that was part of the earlier transition package is drying up, leaving some O&C counties with major budget shortfalls. This has given rise to new and intense political interest to “solve” the dilemma facing rural western Oregon.
Unfortunately, not everyone wants to solve the problem the right way. Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon has authored disastrous legislation that would carve out over a million acres of the O&C lands for industrial timber production. A timber “trust” composed of local counties, timber industry representatives and others would manage the lands for the sole purpose of increasing timber production without having to comply with any federal environmental laws. This bill, now moving through the House of Representatives, would essentially privatize lands that belong to all Americans for the narrow and exclusive financial benefit of local counties and the timber industry, regardless of any impacts on fish, wildlife and water quality.
But the real action is with Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In June he released a framework for legislation to address issues facing O&C counties which would designate a “substantial” but undefined portion of the 2.1 million acres of O&C lands for accelerated and expanded commercial logging, with limited environmental review.
Intensive logging at the scale indicated in Senator Wyden’s framework would contribute to the serious decline or loss of many imperiled plant and animal species from Northwest forests. It would also create a damaging example for how other public lands and resources should be managed. O&C lands are federal public lands owned by all Americans, and narrow, special interest legislation that limits environmental review and dedicates large areas to a single extractive use is counter to both existing law and our modern values of what it means to be good stewards of our lands.
Finally, the Wyden framework is not a path to a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. Unsustainable logging is…unsustainable. The timber industry and affected counties must adapt to a reduced timber supply from public lands. In fact, O&C counties could profit handsomely from the host of values public forests provide, including clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and sustainable economic opportunities that are the foundation of the new economy in the New West.
Senator Wyden is expected to introduce legislation based on his framework later this summer. Defenders of Wildlife and partners have already expressed our concerns about the framework to the Senator. We will continue to engage in the legislative debate on O&C lands to ensure that any future management scheme for O&C lands—public forests that support a breadth of public values—considers the broader public interest of all Americans.