Railroad companies interested in westward expansion in the 1800s got a great deal from the federal government. To spur development of rail lines, Congress regularly granted companies public land that they could then sell or develop as an economic incentive for their investment in building railroad infrastructure. These land grants were often conferred in a checkerboard pattern, with alternating blocks of land given to the railroad companies and retained by the government, which has resulted in endless management challenges ever since.
Speed forward several decades. In 1916, Congress determined that the Oregon and California, or O&C, railroad project had failed to meet its commitments for rail development from, you guessed it, Oregon to California, and took back, or “revested” the land the government had granted the company. Congress subsequently enacted special legislation in 1937, the O&C Act, reclaiming the lands, which now comprise about 2.1 million acres in western Oregon. These O&C lands were to be managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM:
…for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut, and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities . . .
The O&C Act also granted the 18 Oregon counties where O&C lands are located 75 percent of revenues generated from timber sales on the these lands. The counties still collect at least 50 percent of timber revenues today.
Zip forward a few more decades, when technology allowed for massive clearcutting of forests throughout the Northwest, including on O&C lands. Huge volumes of timber came off public forests in the 1970s and 80s, producing huge amounts of revenue to the O&C counties (which also began to take the federal revenue for granted and kept their own property taxes among the lowest in Oregon). But that harvest was unsustainable and in the early 90’s it came to a head, as species like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet, dependent on complex old-growth forests, showed precipitous declines—indicators of the ecological problems created by unsustainable logging of ancient forests.
Old-growth logging and its environmental consequences ultimately became a political issue in the 1992 presidential election. Candidate Bill Clinton promised to do something about it, and soon after he was elected he convened a forest summit in the Northwest and established a science-based process for developing a plan to conserve forest ecosystems while supporting a sustainable timber supply and rural jobs. The “Northwest Forest Plan,” finalized in 1994, adopted a system of conservation reserves, created a “matrix” for managing forests outside reserves, and established management standards to ensure the persistence of the northern spotted owl and other old-growth dependent species, protect watersheds and salmon, and provide a sustainable timber supply. O&C lands became a core part of the Northwest Forest Plan, and for the past twenty years, those lands have been managed under the standards and guidelines of the plan.
The Northwest Forest Plan was also paired with additional assistance to rural communities to provide job training and other measures to transition to a new economy less dependent on old-growth forest logging. These federal resources were of considerable benefit to individuals and communities who chose to avail themselves of them.
Zoom forward another two decades, and now we’ve arrived to our situation today. Some O&C counties have failed to diversify their economies, and a number of timber mills have not adapted to the market conditions of 2013. In addition, federal appropriations to counties that were part of the earlier transition package are drying up, leaving some O&C counties with major budget shortfalls. This is why there is intense political interest to “solve” the problems facing rural western Oregon.
Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon has proposed disastrous legislation that would carve out over a million acres of the O&C lands, de-federalizing them by creating a timber “trust” managed by local counties, timber industry representatives and others for the sole purpose of expediting and increasing timber production. This proposal would essentially privatize lands belonging to all Americans for the narrow and exclusive financial benefit of local counties and the timber industry.
But the real action is with Oregon’s Senator Ron Wyden, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In June he released a framework for legislation to address the issues facing O&C counties which:
- …sets aside a “substantial” but undefined portion of the 2.1 million acres of O&C lands for accelerated and expanded commercial logging at an uninterrupted rate—a rate that can only be ensured by restricting the application of federal environmental laws.
- …calls for limiting environmental review to “an initial review of all lands set aside” for timber harvest. This so-called “modernization” of federal land management planning would require an override of consultation requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which are the heart of the ESA’s protection for imperiled species.
- …is silent on the conservation of mature forests—stands aged 80-120 years—which are vital to the survival of salmon, spotted owls, and other imperiled fish and wildlife. While his framework takes no position on stands of this age class, it will be impossible to meet the elevated harvest targets that Senator Wyden is promoting without aggressive harvesting in these forests.
- …re-links county revenue generation to logging on federal public lands creating a powerful constituency for unsustainable high levels of extraction.
Senator Wyden’s framework envisions significantly increasing timber harvest on hundreds of thousands of acres of federal forests above the allowable levels set by the Northwest Forest Plan. Intensive logging at this scale with only the barest, one-time programmatic environmental review would contribute to the serious decline or loss of many imperiled plant and animal species from Northwest forests. (Consider, for example, that in 1991, BLM sought approval to proceed with 44 timber sales on just 4,500 acres of old-growth forests, even though this logging would have put the continued existence of the northern spotted owl in jeopardy.) Plus, O&C lands are the heart of the Northwest Forest Plan and aggressive harvests will inevitably undermine conservation strategies for imperiled species like the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, and salmon, and necessitate greater mitigating harvest restrictions in California and Washington.
The framework put forth by Senator Wyden would also establish a negative precedent for managing public lands and resources. O&C lands are federal public lands that benefit all Americans, and narrow, special interest legislation that limits environmental review and dedicates large areas to a single extractive use is counter to both existing law and our modern values for administering the public domain. Unlike fun times in Las Vegas, what happens on O&C lands will not stay on O&C lands and will affect federal forest management in California and Washington, and beyond.
Finally, the Wyden framework is not a path to a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. Unsustainable logging is…unsustainable. The timber industry and affected counties must adapt to a reduced timber supply from public lands and O&C counties must finally raise their property tax rates so they are comparable to rates for other Oregon counties. Logging conducted with only cursory environmental review and planning would threaten a host of imperiled species and other values public forests provide, including clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation and sustainable economic opportunities that are the foundation of the new economy in the New West. Congress should provide support to O&C communities to transition to stronger economies, but without linking federal payments to arbitrary and fixed timber production targets.
Senator Wyden is expected to introduce legislation based on his framework later this summer. Defenders of Wildlife and partners have already signaled our concerns about the framework that he has offered in multiple communications to his office. We will continue to engage in the legislative debate on O&C lands to ensure that any future management scheme for O&C lands—public forests that support a breadth of public values—supports and reflects the broader public interest of all Americans.