Wyden seeks O&C land solution

DALLAS -- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he believes he's found a national model for use -- and conservation -- of federal lands.


Federally-owned Oregon and California Railroad (O&C) lands span 2.4 million acres of forest land in 18 Oregon counties, including 41,651 in Polk County.

DALLAS -- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said he believes he's found a national model for use -- and conservation -- of federal lands.

As the chairman of the U.S. Senate Natural Resource Committee in the upcoming congressional session, he has influence over resource-related legislation, including proposals for increasing harvests on federally-owned O&C (Oregon and California Railroad) lands in Oregon.

Senator Ron Wyden

O&C lands span 2.4 million acres in 18 counties in Western Oregon, including Polk County, though most of it is located in southwestern Oregon. Those lands were a significant source of income for counties before environmental concerns reduced timber harvests in recent decades.

"I don't have a higher priority than coming up with a significantly more sensible approach in natural resources and forestry in this upcoming session," Wyden said at a town hall meeting in Dallas last week.

He's been there before, part of creating a management and conservation plan for 8.3 million acres of national forest land in Oregon east of the Cascades.

Timber industry executives and conservation groups worked with Wyden's office to broker a deal they all could live with, which was crafted into a bill Wyden sponsored.

The bill, introduced in December 2009, provides predictability for timber harvests and protections for old growth and other environmentally sensitive areas.

More than three years later, though, the bill still hasn't been enacted into law. Wyden said he will push to get the legislation passed in the upcoming session.

However, he said timber companies logging in the region have already adopted its regulations.

"There have been very positive effects from it," he said. "The cut is up ... litigation is down."

He said a similar strategy would work for a compromise on O&C lands. One may already be in process.

Gov. John Kitzhaber in October formed a team of Oregon timber executives, conservationists and O&C county commissioners to craft a plan for O&C lands.

Wyden provided the group with a list of principles to be considered, based on what he believed would make a bill palatable to his fellow lawmakers.

Among them were sustainability, efficient land management, compliance with federal law and regulations, and safeguarding of old growth timber.

"Those were the kind of principles I thought gave us the best chance to get balanced approaches on natural resources as quickly as possible," he said, noting proposals to privatize federal land would likely be non-starters.

"The idea of selling federal lands and waiving environmental laws, the history of that, if you look at the examples, is not very good."

Wyden also pointed to O&C county property tax rates -- some of which are extremely low because they were set when timber revenues were more consistent. He acknowledged that economic times were not ideal, but stressed that counties should consider addressing the artificially low tax rates as part of a plan to stabilize revenues. He said lawmakers from other states have been resistant to vote for county timber payment legislation, which Wyden originally authored in 2000 to replace timber cut revenue, because the property tax rates are so low.

That is a reality Polk County officials know well as they are considering asking for a levy to support law enforcement services.

"It's really, really tough to have to ask people to raise their taxes to pay for the services that they know they could pay for if we had more access to (natural) resources," Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said at Wyden's town hall. "We have to have more flexibility there."

Pope said county leaders are taking criticism for not pressing congressional representatives more to back legislation that will provide more access to logging. He urged Wyden to back the proposal from Kitzhaber's panel.

Wyden said he would need to see the group's final proposal before deciding to support it.

The proposal is due in the coming weeks.

"I think we have a great team of people trying to put something forward, so we are reaching out to you, asking to help us in that process," Pope said.


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