Onus is on legislators in O&C Trust Act

The New Era

Residents of Linn County and other Western Oregon communities should be forgiven if they experience a wave of cynicism when they hear talk of opening up local federal forest lands to logging.

After two decades of legal wrangling and lack of leadership at many levels in solving the problems of rapidly thickening woodlands that pose serious hazards, the kind we’ve seen come to light in conflagrations such as the B&B, Sour Biscuit and Biscuit fires, not much has happened to solve the problems of ruined local economies, hundreds of thousands of acres of wasted resources and a few enriched attorneys and environmental activists.

Let’s just be thankful it’s not quite as dry here – yet – as it is in Southern Oregon right now, where the smoke is as thick as pea soup.

Politics is a tricky business that requires timing, good sense and experience (which produces the previous qualities). It appears that some of our state’s politicians are making some serious progress in advancing a plan that would actually begin to alleviate some of the problems described above.

Last week, a U.S. House committee advanced legislation drafted by our local Rep. Peter DeFazio, along with fellow congressmen Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden, which calls for much higher timber harvest levels on former Oregon & California Railroad lands in Western Oregon. It would put 1.5 million acres of O&C land into a trust that the state would manage for timber production without the constraints of federal environmental laws. Some of the land would be set aside as protected wilderness.

O&C lands, the result of a special law passed in 1937, commit 75 percent of revenues from timber harvests on those lands with Western Oregon counties, such as ours, for schools and roads. The flow of those funds to impoverished rural counties has been fitful, at best, and only continue due to emergency extensions to the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, which has compensated rural communities for loss of revenue due to the spotted owl protections and other reasons.

The O&C Trust Act, as it is called, gained momentum as it was marked up in the Natural Resources Committee as part of a package of legislation spearheaded by Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings, a Washington state Republican.

After approval by the Natural Resources Committee, the bill has moved on to the full House and then, hopefully, to the Senate.

Now we’ll find out where our Oregon delegation really stands as they maneuver this critical legislation to a vote – or block it. Waiting is Sen. Ron Wyden, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He has his own legislation in process, which would increase harvests to a smaller degree and infringe less on environmental protections.

We hope Ron and our other Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley were paying attention when they visited those Douglas County fires over the weekend.

Environmental groups like Oregon Wild have, not surprisingly, have raised objections to the congressmen’s plan. The question for Wyden, who’s background is city life, and Merkley, whose father was a millright and who grew up in a timber town, is whether they will listen to the reasoning that has got us where we are – a bad place – or stand up for the people who actually live in the forests and would like to work there.

If the House bill makes it to the Senate, where a majority of Democrats oppose vast expansion of logging, it will be up to Wyden and Merkley, to stand up for the interests rural communities they represent that have borne the brunt of the efforts to protect the spotted owl.

The issue here is whether extreme and ineffective efforts to save the owl should continue to hold the heads of rural communities like Sweet Home under the muddy water of the environmentalist arguments that got us where we are, but have not held up well under scientific research.

While environmental activitists continue to proclaim that cutting timber will destroy the work they’ve done to preserve Oregon’s forestland, we ask that our leaders not forget that while the spotted owl continues to decline, as its forest home thickens unnaturally, so do its neighbors.