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KS Wild’s O&C Position Paper

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Western Oregon BLM Forests

Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild), which has recently merged with Siskiyou Project, is an advocate for the wildlife, waters, and wildlands of southern Oregon. We focus on protecting salmon habitat, intact forests, and clean water and encourage ecologically-based, restoration thinning of overly dense forests in our region. We have over 4,500 members, many of which are in southern Oregon.

big-tree-hazel.gifRepresentative Peter DeFazio has offered ideas to significantly alter management on BLM forests in Western Oregon, in part to produce funding for counties, create jobs, and provide logs to local mills. He has also stated that he wants to protect important public forestlands, including old forests, irreplaceable salmon runs and recreational opportunities on public lands. Of the 2.6 million acres of BLM lands (2.1 million acres are O&C land), KS Wild is very engaged in the management of 800,000 acres on the Medford BLM, and our interests extend to adjacent Roseburg and Coos Bay lands in the Klamath-Siskiyou province. Below we offer an historical overview of county funding, current proposals to address the county funding crisis, the ecological and social importance of Western Oregon BLM forest holdings, and our organizational priorities for conservation in the Siskiyou region.

Funding for Counties

Over the decades, public lands timber sales played a major role in the financing of some county governments. Many county governments historically shared in the receipts generated from federal timber sales. This was especially the case for 18 counties in western Oregon with land classified as “O&C.” The timber sale receipts were shared at 25% from US Forest Service and BLM sales and 50% from those lands classified as O&C.

As the pace and scale of logging accelerated through the 1980s, increasingly large timber receipts were shared with the O&C counties, peaking at well over $100 million per year. A crisis brought on in part by over-cutting of old-growth forests – leading to the endangerment of the spotted owl, the Northwest Forest Plan, and significantly lower timber sales receipts – left county governments with large holes in their budgets. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (2000) provided counties with a federal subsidy in lieu of timber receipts until they could create replacement revenue.

From 1960 to 2000, O&C county governments received a significant percent of their budget from federal timber receipts, thus removing incentives to make their property tax rates commensurate with other counties in the state. By the mid-nineties, raising tax rates became next to impossible creating a barrier to the desired outcome of SRS – county self-determination. The “Oregon tax revolt” led by Bill Sizemore beginning in 1990 was the progenitor of the barrier. The passage of Measure 5 froze tax rates on real estate. For example, Josephine County’s rate was frozen at $0.57 per $1,000 of assessed value – the lowest in Oregon and one of the lowest in the nation. Then in 1996 and 1997, Measures 47 and 50 reduced the property assessment value by about ten percent. Currently property tax rates and assessment values can only be changed by a vote of county residents. There have been very few successful attempts to modernize the tax base in many of these counties. Now, county governments in western Oregon again face a budget crisis brought on by the expiration of the federal timber subsidy in 2012.

Fixing the Counties

As a way out of the county funding crisis, Representative DeFazio has proposed to bifurcate the management of western Oregon BLM forests in order to create a “timber trust” that would produce timber and revenue from logging younger, managed stands. The remainder of the BLM land would remain in its current or (slightly more) protective status. While this plan is an admirable attempt to strike a balance; KS Wild is concerned with four aspects of the proposal:

  1. Establishing precedent of “semi-privatizing” public lands;
  2. Increasing clearcut, short-rotation forestry to generate revenue at the expense of environmental safeguards and watershed values;
  3. Removing federal forests from the scientific framework of the Northwest Forest Plan could lead to an unraveling of foundational protections for Pacific Northwest forests and threatened species; and
  4. Creating social conflict through environmental degradation across large landscapes.

Establishing Precedent: There are many ideas floating around to help fund counties, and they all have one thing in common – logging would be ramped up on a large portion of BLM land through either semi-privatization or another special status, and that money would fund a fiduciary trust to benefit O&C counties. While logging would need to increase many times over current levels, the scale and intensity of logging would be proportional to the amount of money needed to fund counties, and would track the highs and lows of the timber market and the federal interest rate. Federal public lands that are currently providing salmon habitat would be at risk from increased roading and logging, federally listed threatened and endangered species would see further fragmentation of their habitats, and drinking watersheds for thousands of Oregonians would be at risk from this return to aggressive industrial logging.

Increasing short rotation forestry: In order to provide the level of funding that western Oregon counties seek, the scale and intensity of logging would need to be similar to that of the early 1980s, when clearcutting forests was common practice on federal land. Using a modified “Oregon Forest Practices Act” level of protection, these federal lands would be managed similar to the way private industrial lands are managed. There would be few substantive environmental protections, and clearcut logging would occur across thousands of acres a year, disrupting watershed functions, lowering property values, and impacting wildlife species and recreation on federal public lands.

Unraveling the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP): The NWFP is a science-based plan that established a forest and streamside reserve system to provide for terrestrial and aquatic health of hundreds of species that depend on the ancient forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Western Oregon BLM forests were determined to be critical to the overall function of this reserve system; indeed, many of these lands are included in a protective reserve status. Removing BLM forests from the scientific framework of the Northwest Forest Plan – and those reserves ­– threatens the scientific, legal and administrative foundation of this plan. Furthermore, if such were to occur, the legal burden of protecting water quality and threatened or endangered species may shift from the BLM to adjacent landowners including other federal and private lands.

The impact of removing somewhere near 1,000,000 acres from the NWFP framework will require extensive study and analysis, and significant adjustments to the framework will be needed to ensure the protection of endangered species, watersheds, and other essential ecosystem services that are relied upon by communities, businesses and forest visitors. It will also necessitate the protection of all remaining federal public lands within the range of the northern spotted owl, until scientifically supported alterations to the NWFP framework can be made. In essence, the balance of the federal public lands would need to be managed as reserves as a consequence of eliminating current reserves on BLM lands.

Creating conflict: The “timber wars” of the 1980s and 1990s could be rekindled if 1,000,000 acres of federal public lands are taken from the public and relegated to short rotation forestry at the hands of industrial timber companies or Wall Street investors in the timber trust. Over 40,000 Oregonians live within a ¼ mile of BLM forests in western Oregon. These BLM neighbors often get their drinking water, recreation and views from adjacent BLM forests. Reinstituting clearcut logging on thousands of acres a year will certainly incite people concerned with property values and the destruction of ecosystems services.

Alternative Fixes

Proposals like the timber trust model rely primarily on removing environmental safeguards from federal lands to produce revenue for county government. But other potential solutions exist. For example, transferring BLM forests in Western Oregon to the Forest Service could save an estimated $40 million dollars per year. Those administrative savings could at least partially fund the counties either permanently or for a transitional period.

Other proposals to find a permanent solution to county funding rely on a shared responsibility of federal, state and local governments. Due to the very low tax rates in many of the 18 O&C counties, some have suggested that the counties must also share the burden by at least bringing their tax rates in line with average tax rates in the state of Oregon. In some counties, this alone would replace revenue shortfalls. Such a change would require a change in laws that currently prevent Oregon counties from raising revenue to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

State government can also help the counties by taking on some of the administrative and managerial duties such as maintaining roads and offering Sheriff support. State government could also tax the log exports, which could produce revenue and would also encourage job creation in the state.

Priorities for protection

KS Wild has worked for the protection of the world-class Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion by prioritizing ecologically and socially important natural resources. Any proposal for BLM lands in our region is weighed against our management priorities for BLM and adjacent public lands. Our priorities include:

Ancient forest systems: Protecting our remaining old-growth forests on public lands, including mature stands of trees that are the next generation of old growth, provides many benefits including carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, clean drinking water and recreational assets. Permanent statutory protection for old-growth is needed to prevent a further erosion of Oregon’s ancient forest heritage. 

Large, intact wild areas: The Siskiyou Wild Rivers area and Siskiyou Crest have some of the largest concentrations of unprotected wildlands on the west coast of the U.S. Governor Kulongoski recommended that 250,000 acres of roadless lands that surround the Kalmiopsis Wilderness be added to the Wilderness system; even former timber lobbyist and Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey recommended 64,000 acres of wilderness additions. Mining and off road vehicles continue to threaten these spectacular wildlands. 

Wild Rivers: Southwest Oregon is known for its wild rivers, and tens of thousands of visitors come here every year to visit and recreate on our rivers. Rivers and streams, like the Illinois, Rogue, Applegate, Chetco, and Elk Rivers and Sucker, Silver, Indigo, Shasta Costa and other creeks are deserving of increased protections from mining, off road vehicles and other threats.  We are an active participant in the Wild Rogue Alliance, which has worked with businesses, timber groups, and local counties to advance protections for the Wild Rogue River. The Alliance brokered a compromise with timber groups to agree to a Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers package for the Wild Rogue. 

Well distributed fish and wildlife: Many of the BLM forests in southern Oregon are important for the connectivity of fish and wildlife populations in the Pacific Northwest. These low-elevation forests afford habitat linkages for wildlife between the Cascade and Coastal mountain ranges that cannot be found elsewhere; the low gradient stream reaches in the Rogue Basin and adjacent watersheds provide some of the most important salmon habitat on public lands in Oregon. The BLM forest lands at issue are critical for any regional conservation strategy to be successful in the long-term.

Priorities for active management

KS Wild has also worked to find common ground active forest management in our region. Any proposal for BLM lands in our region is weighed against our restoration priorities for BLM and adjacent public lands. Priorities for this work include:

Crumbling road systems: Salmon habitat, clean water and public safety are all placed at risk from the excessive road network that is too often unmaintained. Storm-proofing roads that are in need of work, replacing culverts that are barriers to fish passage, and removing unnecessary roads can help restore ecological integrity and provide jobs. 

Plantations: Previously logged and planted stands of trees are a priority for restoration. In addition to private industry land, state and county land, and other non-federal land that has been previously clearcut, there are nearly 500,000 acres of tree plantations on federal land in the Rogue Basin alone. Restoration and management of these degraded lands provide jobs and logs to local communities.

Fire Suppressed Forests: The dry forests of eastern Oregon and scattered throughout southern Oregon are suffering from decades of fire suppression. Too often, encroaching young trees shade out large, old trees. Fire hazards are rapidly building around communities and biologically and recreationally important landscapes. Thinning degraded forests of these fuels and encroaching trees is ecologically desirable and often provides timber to local mills and jobs to communities.

Conclusion

KS Wild is well rooted in southern Oregon and has firsthand experience with the county funding crisis. Our organization and members use county services and are concerned about the continuance of good local governance. We also live in an incredible region in which our natural assets bring in business, new residents and provide a quality of life and watershed values that we cannot afford to trade away. While it is imperative that a solution to the county funding problem be found, the counties should not be made fiscally sound at the expense of these natural resource values, while their tax bases remain unreasonably low. The burden of county funding should not fall excessively on the back of important public forests- creating forest destruction, species extinction, watershed degradation and a resurgence of social and environmental conflict.

We are hoping that our members of Congress can find a solution for counties by working with the state, counties and communities to remove the barriers to self-reliance. Our protection and restoration priorities outlined above are commonsense and garner considerable public support. We need a solution that creates funding for counties, creates jobs for citizens, restores degraded forests and preserves biological diversity, clean water and special places in southern Oregon. Indeed, this is the job that stands before us – one that is inescapable – if we are to find a sustainable path forward and leave to the next generation a hopeful and prosperous future.