Hopes rose this year that federal lawmakers would pass a bill to increase logging on Oregon & California Railroad trust lands.
But at some point, reality must sink in. Waiting for Congress has been futile.
Chances now appear better that a federal judge will restore sensible management of the vast O&C timberlands, which are growing seven times faster than they are being harvested.
The surplus growth represents untapped wealth. It’s not even healthy from an ecological standpoint.
Democrats and Republicans largely agree there’s a problem, and the consensus would seem to be promising. But it’s been an illusion.
Only two U.S. senators have a vested interest in the issue: Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Neither has shown the requisite passion to overcome their party’s natural reluctance to cross environmental groups.
Anyone following Western Oregon timber issues knows that self-involved activists perched in trees have had a greater effect on timber policy this year than either of Oregon’s United States senators.
Hopes peaked in February at a Senate committee hearing chaired by Wyden. The senator said lawmakers should make a commitment to get a bill passed this year.
In a way, it was an odd moment, considering Wyden was addressing, more or less, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield.
DeFazio had already stuck his neck out and helped push through the House a workable plan to increase O&C logging.
Wyden, on the other hand, had already killed DeFazio’s bill and introduced an unworkable plan that’s probably even worse than the status quo.
For months, we heard vague assurances of behind-the-scence discussions about combining the “best elements” of the DeFazio and Wyden plans. This made no sense because Wyden had already rejected the best elements of DeFazio’s plan.
Defying expectations, nothing has moved in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Last week, we learned Wyden will take his O&C plan to the Finance Committee, which he now chairs. An optimistic person could see this as Wyden doggedly pursuing another avenue. A pessimist looks at the calendar and sees that time has run out to push through tough legislation before the election.
If Democrats retain control of the Senate, it’s hard to see how O&C legislation will fare better in 2015 than in 2014. A Republican-controlled Senate might be more open to reforming federal timber policies, but on all federal lands, not just O&C lands. This will stiffen opposition from the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the timber industry has pleaded in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., that the remedy lies in enforcing the 1937 O&C Act, which calls for sustainable harvests. Since harvests could increase by sevenfold and still be sustainable, the industry has a point. The straightforward argument was received favorably last year by Judge Richard Leon, who ordered the Bureau of Land Management to increase timber harvests in its Roseburg and Medford districts.
The timber industry has a bigger case pending in front of Leon that would apply to all O&C lands. The lawsuit asks, Why has BLM let the 1973 Endangered Species Act effectively nullify the older, and still on the books, O&C Act?
Another ruling favorable to the timber industry has the potential to dramatically increase timber harvests. That’s more than anyone can say about anything that’s happening in the Senate.