Commissioners protest forest bill

By Katy Nesbitt/The Observer September 04, 2013 11:09 am

Eastern Oregon county commissioners take issue with Oregon senator’s forest bill 

LOSTINE — County commissioners from around Eastern Oregon told U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, last week that they don’t agree with his plan to restore forests and maintain what remains of a dwindling timber industry.

In a letter dated Aug. 27, 14 commissioners said a bill Wyden introduced known as the Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act of 2013, doesn’t go far enough.

Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson said he has several concerns with the bill.

“We’ve been talking for years now and we have to provide some certainty for the wood products industry that there will be a reliable supply off the national forest lands if we expect them to survive,” Davidson said.

Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said she, too, is concerned about the impact on jobs.

“We don’t see anything that shows that there will be a big increase immediately, like saw logs that provide dollars to the economy,” Roberts said. “We have two mills in Northeastern Oregon and Elgin hanging in the balance. This is all at the expense of the human element — that to me is the biggest concern.”

Another area of concern is putting science in the hands of legislators, Davidson said. 

“It’s a poor practice to legislate silviculture from Washington, D.C. We need to give the scientists who work for the Forest Service the ability to make decisions based on sound silvicultural practices,” Davidson said.

The commissioners said timber harvest is already limited by interim standards in place to protect fish and riparian habitat, as well as a rule that prevents harvest of trees bigger than 21 inches in diameter. The bill adds another limitation, not cutting any trees more than 150 years old. 

“These are arbitrary standards that hamper sound management,” Davidson said.

Roberts said she doesn’t think Wyden worked with Eastern Oregon to identify its needs. 

“He developed a plan and didn’t ask anyone out here if it would be feasible,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t reduce the 21 (inches in diameter) rule, nor does it address the wet, moist sites. He misses the entire point that the federal government changed its policy and it directly affected timber counties, especially in our area. It took away all of our good-paying jobs, the family structure, everything you relied on as a community is missing. You can’t make it up with tourist and recreation jobs. You can’t make it up with stewardship contracts.”

Tom Towslee of Wyden’s Portland office said the intent of the bill is to address all of the things that the commissioners fear aren’t happening and won’t change.

“Sen. Wyden’s Eastside Forest Bill is a way forward to create more jobs in Eastern Oregon,” Towslee said. “We appreciate the commissioners input and take it seriously. We all agree we need more jobs in the mills and the woods to make our forests healthier and more fire resistant.”

Mike Hayward, Wallowa County Board of Commissioners chairman, said biologists from the Forest Service don’t agree with how the plan plays out either. 

“I could buy into what the senator is saying if I didn’t spend hours upon hours in meetings where the Forest Service is saying, ‘You have to look at site specific.’ These hard standards are not how you manage a land base, but we can’t seem to get past that.”

Davidson said looking into the future, the bill doesn’t come with adequate funding. 

“We spend $40 million annually on the east side forests in Oregon to manage restoration for about 130,000 acres and this bill allocates $50 million for a 15-year time period — only about an 8 percent annual increase,” he said. “It is insufficient to actually move the needle on making any progress in supplying timber for our industry, reducing fire danger and restoring forest health.”

For more than a year, representatives of the Northeastern Oregon timber industry, land management agencies, environmental organizations and local politicians have met to discuss how best to meet forest restoration goals while addressing the needs of timber-dependent jobs. Davidson is part of the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Collaborative and is working with a Forest Service-appointed team that is working to meet these needs.

“The thing that is encouraging is that Regional Forester Kent Connaughton has recognized the severity of the situation we face and allocated additional funds for the four forests in the Blue Mountains to start to address the problem,” Davidson said.

Other collaborative efforts are under way across the region. Davidson said they are a positive step. 

“They show reasonable minded people can come together and find common ground,” he said.

Contact Katy Nesbitt at 541-786-4235 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Katy on Twitter @lgoNesbitt.