ODF habitat plan has many flaws

By Amanda Astor

The Oregon Department of Forestry is proposing major changes in state forest management.

Last year, the agency released a draft 70-year habitat conservation plan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The hope was that such a plan would help protect threatened species while also improving revenues through timber harvests.

The plan fails on multiple counts.

A big focus of the plan is, of course, on the northern spotted owl. Regrettably, the draft HCP does not prioritize the survival and recovery of the spotted owl by addressing its greatest threat: the invasive barred owl.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s own research has demonstrated that the barred owl, which is now abundant in our northwest forests, is the primary driver in the spotted owl’s demise.

Instead, ODF’s HCP focuses entirely on creating new habitat, setting aside 60% of state forests and significantly reducing timber harvests. This is the same thing we’ve been doing unsuccessfully on federal forests since the early 1990s, when millions of acres were set aside for owl habitat. Decades later, spotted owl populations continue to decline.

While the conservation outcomes of the HCP are suspect, the financial implications are clear.

If implemented, the HCP won’t even produce enough revenue for ODF to keep its lights on. ODF has the unique ability to generate its own revenue through sustainable timber harvest, which pays for the costs of managing these forests, keeping them open to the public and free of wildfire. How is it acceptable that the agency would knowingly and willingly go broke?

Every tax-paying Oregonian should be concerned by this plan!

The good news? There’s still time to improve the plan. The federal agencies are willing to work with stakeholders and consider “a range of reasonable alternatives.” But someone has to identify and propose those alternatives. While ODF staff have acknowledged that the current HCP fails to meet its own environmental and economic goals, they have communicated zero interest in entertaining other viable strategies for managing these forests.

As a former federal employee and forest advocate who used to work with NEPA every day, it is shocking to hear the state has given up on finding a more sustainable path forward and is refusing to consider other, more effective and less costly ways to meet its obligations. All workable alternatives that conserve spotted owl populations while also producing better financial outcomes should be considered.

This is not the first time ODF has failed to deliver on its obligations. In 2019, the forest trust land counties sued the state for failing to meet its financial responsibilities through sustainable timber harvest and the counties won! In a $1 billion class-action lawsuit, the jury found that greatest permanent value on state lands meant maximizing revenues.

If ODF refuses to offer suggestions on ways the HCP might be improved, others will need to step up.

Amanda Astor is the forest policy manager for Associated Oregon Loggers. This commentary previously appeared in The Register-Guard newspaper.