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Wyden bill for forests brings sides together

By paul fattig
mail tribune

Timber industry, activists agree on new forest-management plan

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A bill introduced Wednesday that would restore jobs and protect old growth in Eastern Oregon is being hailed as breaking new ground in the decades-long debate over logging in the Northwest, garnering support from the timber industry and environmentalists alike.

But could it work on the west side of the Cascades?

The bill, introduced Wednesday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., authorizes an extra $50 million for the Forest Service to shift its focus to large-scale forest restoration projects, tripling the number of acres thinned over the next three years on six national forests in Eastern Oregon.

It also bars logging most large trees and along streams, limits road building, and streamlines the process for lodging environmental objections to projects.

Called "Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act," the bill represents nearly a year of talks between timber and conservation groups, once bitter enemies but who on Wednesday joined Wyden in Washington, D.C., when he introduced the bill.

Wyden said he hopes it will serve as a foundation for expanding forest restoration and timber jobs on the west side of the Cascades and across the rest of the nation.

"This bill is to put Congress on record saying it wants to direct the Forest Service to do business differently," Wyden said in a teleconference. "I want to see Congress show the Forest Service and the country there is a new day — that forest restoration is the guiding principle. We want to enable that principal to fashion increased timber production and also protect forests that Oregonians treasure."

While restoring ecological conditions skewed by a century of misguided logging practices and preventing fire from playing its natural role of keeping forests healthy, the bill would also rescue struggling mills and logging operations crucial to the restoration work, Wyden said.

"The areas of agreement between the conservation community and the timber industry mean that's the end of the timber wars," said Andy Kerr, a conservation consultant who was repeatedly hanged in effigy by loggers when he was conservation director for the Oregon Natural Resources Council and helped lead the fight to stop old-growth logging in the Northwest.

"Isn't life ironic?" Kerr said. "I was happy to see mills close when they were cutting nothing but old-growth forest. But because of fire suppression, livestock grazing and high-grade logging these many hundreds of thousands of acres of these forests are overgrown with ecologically problematic trees. Turning those trees into commercially valuable logs as part of comprehensive forest and watershed restoration is just fine with us."

"I'm hoping that the solution on the east side will set the table for a similar solution on the west side," said Joseph Vaile, campaign coordinator for the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Vaile worked on the effort early on but largely bowed out when the focal point was exclusively on Eastern Oregon.

"It was determined there was a lot more common ground on the east side," he said. "But I see movement toward restoration becoming the manager paradigm on national forest on the west side. You can see in the agencies and the timber industry a recognition of a great restoration need on the landscape.

"But it all depends on the right circumstances coming together," he added. "What helped push it on east side was the economy. Some of those mills weren't going to survive unless something was done."

Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, is also hoping for a west-side solution.

"We desperately need the wood and we need to manage the forest," he said. "It's a win-win if we can do that."

He and Vaile are members of the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Stewardship Collaborative, which is working to reach consensus on thinning forests in the upper Applegate River watershed. The group includes timber industry representatives, environmental activists and federal agency employees.

While applauding Wyden's bill, Schott observed that the Healthy Forests Restoration Amendments Act of 2009, introduced last week by Oregon U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Kurt Schrader, D-Salem, is aimed at finding a solution for the west side. Its goals are to create jobs, expand renewable energy projects and reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires near rural communities.

"That really is what Greg is trying to do," Schott said of a west-side solution.

"But one of the concerns we have with the Forest Service and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) forests here is that we have so much volume that we can't ever catch up now," he added. "We are going to have the fires."

He said that on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest alone, the annual growth is about 1 billion board feet while only 2 percent of that is being removed. The result is overstocked forests that become so much kindling during the height of fire season, he said.

"But I think it is terrific an agreement has been reached for Eastern Oregon," he said.

"The fact conservationists and the timber industry and Senator Wyden reached unprecedented agreement bodes well for the Northwest," observed collaborative participant Randi Spivak, vice president of government relations with the Ashland-based National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

"Some of those concepts could carry over to the west side," she added. "The forest management is science-driven. That's a strong cornerstone. It is not a compromise. It shows that you can get science-based management that produces jobs and protects the environment."

Kerr cautioned that the west side offers more challenges. That includes everything from county payments dependent on timber harvests to more people.

"The difference is that problems on the west side are stronger and harder to overcome than on the east side, not that the east side was easy," he said, adding, "It's tougher on the west side but there is hope."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com. Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press also contributed to this story.

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