Thursday, June 20, 2013
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A governor-appointed panel of local officials, conservationists and timber industry executives is hoping to find a solution to logging on federally-managed O&C lands.
January 08, 2013
POLK COUNTY -- A panel appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber to find a solution to harvesting more timber on the federally-managed O&C (Oregon & California Railroad) lands is hoping to accomplish in mere months something that has eluded lawmakers for years.
Within weeks it will release a recommendation for legislation that will try to balance the seemingly opposing needs of the timber industry, environmental protections and local government financial stability in the 18 Oregon counties containing O&C lands.
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.
The governor's panel includes 14 members: four O&C county commissioners, six representatives of conservation groups and four timber industry executives.
The group's task is to put together a proposal palatable to all interests that would avoid legal challenges.
The panel is slated to issue its recommendation this month or early February. It will then be presented to Oregon's Congressional delegation to be crafted into a bill, said Tom Tuchmann, Kitzhaber's forestry and conservation finance adviser who is managing the panel.
Time is running short. Twice-renewed county timber payments -- a lifeline for many O&C counties -- will expire again this year after a one-year extension in 2012.
"There is a real urgency," Tuchmann said, noting that is the reason for the narrow October-January time frame the panel is working with. "The governor is fully aware that we need to come up with our two cents now."
Polk County's payment under the most recent renewal was about $800,000, funding it stands to lose if the program isn't renewed or an alternative found.
Tuchmann believes the urgency may work in favor of a compromise.
"With that (county payments) going away, all parties feel there needs to be a congressional solution to this issue for the long term," Tuchmann said.
Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said the meetings are closed and details on the upcoming proposal are tightly guarded, even to other members of the Association of the O&C Counties Board, including himself.
Tuchmann said Kitzhaber hasn't determined yet whether the proposal will be open to public comment once introduced.
Originally, deeded to the Oregon & California Railroad Co. to build a rail line, the federal government reclaimed ownership of the O&C lands in 1916 after the railroad failed to meet terms of its agreement. A 1937 bill put the lands in permanent forest production, sharing revenues with O&C counties based on timber receipts. However, environmental concerns have severely curtailed harvest on federal lands for decades -- and county revenue with it.
Congress passed legislation for a county payment program to replace lost funding and has renewed it twice, the last time in July 2012.
The panel's attempt to find a permanent solution is one of many. Tuchmann said of 26 bills introduced over the years seeking to resolve the issue, only a few have gotten a committee hearing. None have passed and legal challenges have delayed full implementation of forest management plans.
"We're not under any illusion that this will be easy," said Kitzhaber when announcing the panel in October. "But the human and environmental costs of the status quo are unacceptable, and Oregonians have shown time and again their ability to come together to solve difficult problems."
Another proposal, introduced by Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield), Kurt Schrader (D-Canby) and Greg Walden (R-Hood River) in February 2012, allowed for 1.5 million O&C acres to be used for commercial purposes, including logging.
Tuchmann said the governor's panel used that legislation as a starting point for discussion, but its final recommendation could provide an alternative to it.
Tuchmann said while meetings will continue this week and next, the panel's work is close to being finished.
Tuchmann said, like the DeFazio-Schrader-Walden plan, the recommendation may suggest temporary county payments continue giving timber revenue a chance to increase.
"But the real focus has been a long-term solution," Tuchmann said. "That's really what has been missing in the past."