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Revised BLM plan divides interests

By by PARIS ACHEN
Mail Tribune
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A legal settlement by a timber industry advocacy group has prompted the first revision of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plan for Western Oregon in more than 10 years.

But during two days of public comments on the plan Wednesday and Thursday in Medford and Grants Pass, environmentalists said they will seek to turn the tide in favor of more environmental protections on BLM lands.

"Instead of looking very narrowly and choosing the timber industry’s alternative, hopefully, the BLM will say, let’s open this up and have a look at what is missing in the natural resource plan," said Chris Bratt, board member of the Ashland-based Headwaters conservation group.

Meanwhile, members of the timber industry said they hope the revision will achieve a heftier timber harvest on Oregon and California Railroad lands, which the BLM manages on behalf of counties.

"The timber industry wants the BLM to manage O & C Railroad lands for the best purpose, one of which is generating income for counties," said David Schott, executive vice president of Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association in Medford.

The BLM plan, set for completion in early 2008, will shape the way the agency manages forests, water, wildlife and logging for 10 to 15 years on 2.5 million acres of public lands from Salem to Medford.

About 2.1 million acres of BLM lands in Western Oregon are regulated by the Oregon and California Railroad Land Act. The lands were initially granted to the rail company they were named for in return for the construction of a rail line between Portland an Ashland, but were seized by the federal government when O&C and the eventual owner, Southern Pacific Railroad Co., violated all the terms restricting the property’s sale to private buyers.

The Portland-based American Forest Resource Council sued the BLM for violating the 1937 congressional act by establishing reserves exempt from logging on lands designated for "permanent forest production."

Much of Oregon and California Railroad lands are set aside as wilderness areas, riparian reserves to protect streams and late-successional reserves where forests show mature characteristics, such as large diameter trunks and canopy.

In a settlement reached in August 2003 between the U.S. government and timber group, the BLM committed to revising its plan for managing natural resources. The agency also agreed to consider an option that would eliminate all forest reserves on Oregon and California Railroad lands except those essential to protecting endangered species.

The deal launched a $4 million revision process that began Sept. 8 with public comments in Salem. The last public meeting was Thursday in Grants Pass.

The revision is the first since the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan in 1994, which called for forest reserves and an annual timber harvest.

Environmentalists said they fear the AFRC settlement is a move toward felling more old growth forests and eroding protections for endangered species.

"I’m very worried this plan is going to cut down more old-growth forests," said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland.

Vaile suggested a plan that would put an end to logging in late-successional reserves and allow only thinning projects on BLM tree plantations.

Eagle Point resident Susan Hanscom said the BLM has not been complying with the Oregon and California Railroad Land Act. She said more timber should be harvested.

"I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but the county has to help take care of the lands, and they should get something back," Hanscom said.

Bill Freeland, chief of resources for the BLM Medford District, estimated about eight to 12 alternatives will be developed by the beginning of next year.

The draft plan and environmental impact statement are expected to be released in 2007 followed by another public comment period.

How to respond

The BLM is accepting comments on the agency’s resource management plan until Oct. 21. Written comments can be sent to BLM, Oregon/Washington State Office, Attn.: Western Oregon Planning Revision (OR 930.1), P.O. Box 2965, Portland, OR 97208; or orwopr@or.blm.gov. For details, call Jim McConnell, BLM Medford District planner, at 618-2402.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4496 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.

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