Counties’ stake in logging debate as big as anyone’s

A recent move by Eugene-based Cascadia Wildlands and two other conservation groups to block Oregon counties from intervening in the environmentalists’ lawsuit to halt logging on state-owned forests is simply hypocritical.

Since The New Era focuses intensely on Sweet Home news, we don’t generally report all the legal maneuvering that takes place in the world of forestry. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of private timberland that, unlike many other Oregon communities, still produces a fairly steady flow of logs and jobs.

Thanks to the dictates handed down by judges and Washington D.C. politicians, who allowed themselves to be hoodwinked by legal challenges centering around a reclusive owl that scientists didn’t – and still don’t – know a whole lot about, the Willamette National Forest is a forest fire waiting to happen.

But there haven’t been a lot of newsworthy changes involving that forestland, though recently we’ve seen very encouraging developments in the Cool Soda area to increase the health of the timberlands. There is also talk of cooperation between various forestry agency and private landowners to tap into the forest’s recreation potential for drawing visitors and their dollars.

But issues arising from this lawsuit are universal for Oregonians living in timber communities and that’s why we’re addressing them.

Basically, as reported by the Eugene Register-Guard in late August, Cascadia Wildlands, the Audubon Society of Portland and the Oregon branch of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit last spring alleging that state-authorized logging in Tillamook, Clatsop and Elliott state forests is eliminating old-growth nesting habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet.

The Association of Oregon Counties filed a motion last month to join with other defendants in the environmental groups’ suit, which targeted Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state Board of Forestry’s plans to accelerate logging in the above-named forests. The suit claims that the logging is eliminating stands of old trees that are known to be murrelet nesting habitat, thus illegally “taking” the seabird in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

We aren’t arguing with the plaintiffs’ right to file their suit, though 20 years later those lawsuits, filed by similar groups, smack more and more of junk science and have left us with largely unmanaged national forests that even environmentalists are starting to realize are becoming an extreme fire risk.

We appreciate the cooperation that environmental groups have evidenced in working with local communities, particularly over the hill in the Sisters area, to thin the forests there.

But what we are arguing is that if this nonprofit county association, funded by county governments across the state to represent their interests, has no standing in this fight, neither should the environmentalists who filed the original suit.

The reason counties are interested in this is because most of them contain timberlands that are potential sources of income for basic services and schools. Since counties can’t collect property tax from state- or federal government-owned timberlands, they have to rely on timber harvest for funding from those lands. Of course, with the massive decrease in harvest from publicly owned timberlands, that money has also slowed to a trickle, at best.

Thankfully, in early July the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 was reauthorized for this federal fiscal year – at 95 percent of the funding counties got in FY 2011. But that came after a prolonged battle and the chances that the Secure Rural Schools act will be renewed again and again, given the struggle it took this time around, are not promising.

So it’s not too hard to see why the counties believe they have a stake in this.

How about the environmentalists? Out of curiosity, we did a little on-line research to determine the most current residences of the staffers of the organizations that filed this lawsuit in the first place. We located names of staff and board of directors listed on their Web sites, then searched on-line phone directories to see if we could find them, or listings that we could reasonably assume were these individuals.

As it turned out, the vast majority of the ones we were able to locate did not even live in a rural community – they lived in urban settings. So, essentially, they are urban residents, who, no doubt enjoy and feel some connection to the forests, filing lawsuits to stop people who actually live in them from benefiting from them and, in many ways, contributing to the health of the forests and the wildlife therein by creating needed open space in them.

If this sounds like a stretch, we ask why. If these environmental groups can file lawsuits to serve their interests, it’s hypocritical for them to challenge interest by entities that represent the interests of thousands, if not millions, of rural residents who have lost jobs, schools, law enforcement and other services once funded by timber.

And really, that hypocrisy has been one of the reasons why our local forests are in the condition they are today.