The White House has threatened to veto a measure pending in the U.S. House that would increase logging on federal lands in Douglas County and 17 other Western Oregon counties.
The Obama administration Wednesday staked out a position on H.R. 1526, which is intended to raise timber harvests on Oregon & California Railroad trust lands.
The bill also would require the U.S. Forest Service to increase logging in other states and share the revenue with local governments.
The measure has yet to receive approval in the House or Senate, but the White House indicated that if it were presented to the president, senior advisers would recommend he veto the bill.
White House advisers said they strongly opposed the measure because it would undermine federal environmental laws.
“I think the White House restated some of the concerns many folks in Oregon have raised,” Oregon Wild Executive Director Sean Stevens said.
The threat of the veto comes as a plan introduced 18 months ago appeared to be gaining momentum, at least in the Republican-controlled House.
Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader proposed to transfer about 1.5 million acres from federal to state oversight. About 1.2 million acres would be put in a conservation trust.
Their proposal was folded this summer into legislation sponsored by Washington Republican Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
The Association of Oregon Counties, which sees the O&C plan as a way to revive the lagging economies and sagging county revenues in timber-reliant counties, hoped H.R. 1526 could pass the full House this week.
An aide to Walden, R-Hood River, told The Associated Press the bill could hit the House floor for debate as early as today.
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said he wasn’t surprised by the veto threat “given the administration’s positions on any extractive industry — oil, gas, coal.”
Robertson drew consolation that the statement didn’t personally commit President Barack Obama to vetoing the bill.
Roberston said he hoped deliberations between the House and Senate and a greater understanding of the plan’s social goals and environmental safeguards will win over the president.
“My guess is the folks who wrote the brief position paper for the administration are really not aware of all the moving parts of the bill,” said Robertson, president of the Association of O&C Counties.
“If there isn’t a chance for finding common ground, what are we left with? The status quo? More litigation? Communities spiraling into poverty? Counties becoming insolvent?”
Bill supporters anticipate harvests administered under state rules would yield more timber and thin overgrown forests susceptible to disease and fires. Opponents, including the White House, say the transfer of control would weaken environmental protections contained in the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and other federal laws.
“This would undermine appropriate management and stewardship of these lands, which belong to all Americans, would compromise habitat for threatened and endangered species, and would create legal uncertainty over management of these lands as well as increase litigation risk,” according to the Statement of Administration Policy.
Furthermore, according to the White House, the DeFazio-Walden-Schrader plan “contains seriously objectionable limitation on the president’s existing authority under the Antiquities Act to designate new National Monuments in this region.”
Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Bob Ragon said he wasn’t surprised by the Obama administration’s opposition.
“This White House has shown they lean very heavily to the environmental position. It’s going to take an act of Congress with a very big majority to show they’ve taken a bad position,” Ragon said. “Obviously, there’s work that needs to be done.”
In a statement today, DeFazio, D-Springfield, said he already knew the Senate won’t consider the parts of the bill related to other federal forests besides O&C lands. He said he still hoped to move an O&C proposal to the Senate, where it will come under the oversight of Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.
“I have negotiated in good faith, from the minority, the best possible O&C solution that can pass the Republican-controlled House. My goal is to move this bipartisan O&C solution forward to the Senate, where I expect Chairman Ron Wyden will make changes so the bill can pass the Democratically controlled Senate and be signed by the president,” DeFazio said.
The White House’s opposition to H.R. 1526 extended beyond the DeFazio-Walden-Schrader plan.
The Obama administration criticized the bill for obligating the Forest Service to meet specific timber harvest levels.
“The administration does not support specifying timber harvest levels in statute, which does not take into account public input, environmental analyses, multiple use management or ecosystem changes,” according to the policy statement.
The White House also made clear it opposes ceding federal control to the states, which could exempt some activities on federal lands from federal environmental policies.
“Federal environmental laws should apply on federal lands,” according to the policy statement.
Douglas County, with 706,321 acres, has more O&C land than any other county. The lands, none of which are in California, are the legacy of a corrupt 19th-century railroad venture. Congress moved to preserve the timberlands in 1937 by setting aside the land for sustainable timber production, watershed protection and recreation. For decades, the 18 O&C counties, including Douglas County, relied on timber revenue from O&C lands for jobs and county revenues.
Timber harvests on O&C lands have declined by 84 percent since the northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. The decrease in timber revenue was a blow to Southern Oregon counties with a large percentage of land base made up of federal timberlands.
Conservation groups had mounted a campaign against the DeFazio-Walden-Schrader plan as it progressed through the House.
Wyden disdained the House plan and has said he’s working on his own proposal that won’t relax environmental laws.
Oregon Wild’s Stevens said he hoped the White House’s stance will cause lawmakers to be more “forward thinking” and not try to revert to land management that emphasizes timber production.
“I don’t think there’s much time to sit on our laurels, just because the president has made that memo public,” he said.
In a statement, Walden said the White House should consider what is happening in rural communities throughout the West.
“Mills are closing, counties are literally going broke, and wildfire season seems to get worse and worse every year,” he said. “The status quo isn’t working. This broken system has to change.”
Jackson County Commissioner John Rachor said he is disappointed in the veto threat, but said it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“It might get people to sit up and listen to what’s been going on,” Rachor said. “Hopefully, if it gets that far, the president won’t veto it. It’s unfortunate that people on the East Coast control what’s happening on the West Coast.”
The vice president of the Association of O&C Counties, Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, said the veto threat was a setback for counties and forests.
“If it’s vetoed, it will be a blow to the entire ecostructure of Oregon and our national forests,” Hyde said. “I’m a little surprised in the president. The last six years he’s been talking about jobs and this is all about jobs.”
The veto cheered environmentalists who have been critical of pilot logging projects in Southern Oregon championed by the Obama administration.
Randi Spivak, a spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Associated Press that the veto threat marked a big change for Obama, who has not been green on national forest policy.
“This strong statement finally puts them on record for protecting the public forests, endangered species, clean water and the laws that are meant to protect these values,” she said.
If there isn’t a chance for finding common ground, what are we left with? The status quo? More litigation? Communities spiraling into poverty? Counties becoming insolvent?
Douglas County Commissioner