Oregon needs a permanent solution to the decades-long fight over managing the Oregon & California Railroad lands that run like a crazed checkerboard across the state.
That solution must increase timber harvests and economic activity on some lands while permanently conserving others. It must guarantee funding for schools, law enforcement and roads. And it must lay the foundation so rural communities can strengthen their private economies and rely less on the federal government.
In the 1980s, years of unsustainable timber harvests collided with renewed public concern over clean air and water and endangered species. This collision left our state with a broken system that produced the worst of two worlds: an inadequate timber harvest and inadequate protection for public lands.
Timber communities lost jobs, while conservation was more often handled by lawyers and judges than foresters and biologists.
Since I was elected to the Senate I have been building bipartisan coalitions to break these bureaucratic logjams. In 2000 I authored the Secure Rural Schools bill, which has brought $2.8 billion for roads, schools and law enforcement to rural Oregon. In 2003 I crossed party lines to write and steer to passage the Healthy Forests Restoration Act designed to streamline timber management. In 2009 I brought together environmentalists and timber companies to agree on a strategy to increase harvests, make forests healthier and reduce litigation in Eastern Oregon.
Today we have an opportunity to do far more. This year I became chairman of the Senate committee with jurisdiction over forestry, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., joined the subcommittee that funds public land management. Gov. John Kitzhaber brought together a number of stakeholders to identify the challenges of managing the O&C lands, and Oregon’s congressional representatives are working on ideas to navigate the Republican House majority.
Gov. Kitzhaber’s report concluded that it is not possible to cut enough trees to produce historic levels of funding in rural counties without violating long-standing environmental laws. Shortcuts like selling off federal lands or ignoring environmental laws cannot be expected to pass the Senate or be signed by the president. Similar ideas have failed for more than 20 years. To create a realistic solution, the O&C lands require the kind of broad coalition with buy-in from all sides that has been shown to work in the past.
As chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, here is what I intend to do: First, Oregon must be able to cut more timber. Increased harvests will create jobs and save the mills our state needs to treat and restore overstocked forests. Done right, it will make our forests healthier and more resistant to wildfire.
While it may not be possible to achieve historic harvest levels, it is certainly possible to cut substantially more timber and create other timber-related jobs while protecting old-growth stands, clean water and essential habitats.
We will reach these goals by reforming and streamlining the bureaucracy around forest management, promoting tourism and recreation, and increasing biomass energy development.
However, none of those efforts will produce enough jobs tomorrow, or even next year, to offset the harm caused by years of mismanagement. Cash-strapped counties face deadlines this spring to decide about maintaining basic services and keeping schools open.
They need a lifeline now. That’s why I secured a pledge from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, to fund the Secure Rural Schools program at least one more year.
For the long term, all rural counties with federal lands and waters deserve to be able to staff the schools, fund law enforcement and maintain the roads required by the use or preservation of those lands.
My policy to end the perpetual roller coaster from revenue sharing includes new initiatives to create private sector jobs, protect the environment and, most of all, make sure rural America doesn’t become a ghost town.
At the same time, communities and states have a responsibility to do their part to generate sustainable revenues through tax levies, economic development and other solutions. Communities like Lane, Josephine and Curry counties that are seeking their own sources of revenue comparable to other states and regions are taking exactly the right approach. This will give people in those communities greater control over their own futures and more independence from the federal government.
My committee held a hearing on payments for timber counties this week, with a focus on the importance of extending the program in the short term and finding a long-term solution. This will be followed by hearings on the past and current failures of federal forest management to produce sustainable private sector jobs, with a particular focus on O&C lands.
By the end of this process, with cooperation from stakeholders on all sides, we will have a solution that works for all of Oregon. Every day, until we pass a bill through Congress, my committee will be working to find a bipartisan, bicameral solution to these problems.
Democrat Ron Wyden has represented Oregon in the U.S. Senate since 1996. Phone numbers for reaching his offices in various parts of the state or emailing him can be found at, www.wyden.senate.gov/contact.