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Wyden presses for forest-thinning bill

By Paul Fattig
Mail Tribune
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Jan 10, 2008 S. Sen. Ron Wyden wants to take an ax to the logjam blocking thinning and forest health projects on federal forestlands in southwestern Oregon.

During a roundtable discussion with representatives of government agencies, the timber industry, environmental groups and others in Medford on Wednesday, Wyden said he planned to introduce a forest thinning bill this year that would cut legal and bureaucratic obstacles to those projects.

"It's clear to me the federal forests in the Pacific Northwest are in trouble — thousands and thousands of acres need to be thinned to reduce the danger of these horrendous fires, make our forests healthier and get merchantable timber to the mills," said Wyden, chair of the senate forestry subcommittee .

"If you have sensible thinning, you create healthier forests, create a healthier economy and create a healthier environment," the Democrat added.

He called for a bill that would allow those who disagree with a federal timber sale to be heard in court without being able to use the courts as a vehicle for gridlock.

"I feel very strongly that people who disagree with federal forestry policy ought to have a right to come to the federal judicial system and have their differences heard," he said. "But I don't believe that ought to translate into a constitutional right for five-year delays."

Most of the 20 people called to discuss the forestry issues appeared to support his effort, particularly when it came to working together.

However, there was some opposition to his call for stopping all old-growth logging.

"I want to protect the remaining old-growth," Wyden announced. "I just don't see Oregonians losing any more old-growth. People of this state think they are treasures.

"I think we can protect them (old-growth) as part of a balanced approach," he added. "And that's what I'm going to be looking at in this legislation."

There are huge stands of overstocked secondary growth that can be thinned to feed mills, he said.

"That's merchantable timber but — by God! — I want to protect our treasures," he said of old-growth.

But Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association, cautioned that wildfires may make old-growth protection a moot point.

"Fire is the 900-pound gorilla hanging from the trapeze above everything," he said. "If we don't have major extraction . . . your old-growth you are so concerned about is going to burn up."

Future wildfires will be three to four times larger than the roughly half-million-acre 2002 Biscuit Fire, he warned.

Link Philippi, representing the Rough and Ready Timber Co. in Josephine County, noted that his mill is not geared up for processing small logs.

"I believe thinning across all-age classes fireproofs our forests better," he said. "We have to focus on what's left in the forest and not what we're taking."

Yet collaboration is growing in the region, observed John Gerritsma, field manager of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Ashland Resource Area. He cited the Southern Oregon Small Diameter Collaborative in which the BLM, industry and environmental groups are participating.

The group is pushing for large-scale approaches to thinning, he said.

"We have estimated there are about 6 billion board feet in this valley of small-diameter 12-inch down to 8-inch trees within 1,000 feet of existing roads," he said.

Yet cost and logistics make harvesting that timber difficult, he said.

To increase collaboration, interested parties need to get involved early in the process, said Joseph Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

As an example, he cited the Big Butte Springs project in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, in which 6,000 acres were thinned with 40 million board feet of timber ultimately being produced.

"What made that so successful was we didn't go into old-growth forest — we didn't go into roadless areas," he said. "And a lot of concerns were addressed up front."

Forest supervisor Scott Conroy agreed collaboration is increasing. He noted there are more than 6,000 acres under contract for thinning, with another 40,000-plus acres approved for thinning — all in previously managed stands.

"We have the beginnings of a very successful story here," he said. "But to end with a successful story we have to recognize that the majority of our fire hazard and forest health issues are in unmanaged stands. We're going to have to treat those stands, too."

Upon questioning by Wyden, Conroy said he wasn't referring specifically to old-growth stands. But he said there would be instances where logging in old-growth was appropriate, including removing the understory to protect those old trees.

"We believe that appropriate and aggressive thinning to restore forest health is where we need to be," said C.W. Smith, a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour noted the Applegate Partnership, a broad-based group that formed in the early 1990s to address forestry issues in the Applegate River drainage, has set an example by working cooperatively to thin forests.

"Southern Oregon is probably closer than most places in the country to finding common threads," Gilmour said of collaborative efforts. "People from all portions of the political spectrum are coming together to realize we have to thin those forests, that we do have to do something that is sustainable, preserve the environment and also provide jobs."

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