Sen. Wyden needs to reorder his priorities on O&C lands


Commissioner Doug Robertson (President, Association of O&C Counties)

As president of the Association of O&C Counties and as Chairman of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, I am puzzled and disappointed with last week’s proposal by Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to transfer thousands of acres of O&C timberland to the Cow Creek and Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Confederated Tribes. Senator Wyden, who has also been working on proposals to designate additional wilderness areas, seems to have the time to develop specific proposals address the issues of all parties interested in the O&C lands, except for the O&C counties themselves.

The Tribal governments would receive the timberlands, though lacking any tax base, already have the benefit of a stable, secure and long-term revenue base in the form of tribal casinos. Meanwhile, many of the O&C Counties are losing their ability to provide basic services to the public – including tribal members – and are struggling to maintain solvency, yet neither Wyden nor Merkley have offered any specific proposals that address County interests in management of O&C timberlands. Counties have no quarrel with the Tribes, but wonder why Senators Wyden and Merkley seem more interested in expanding wilderness and dealing with Tribes than facing the Counties’ desperate need for economic activity on the O&C lands. It should all be done together.

To his credit, Senator Wyden has shown an interest in another year of the “safety net” payments to Counties. But, unless those ever-shrinking payments are coupled with major reform of management of the O&C lands, safety net payments are a bridge to nowhere. Such programs only prolong the agony. It is time to move beyond the one-year bandaid of diminishing safety net payments and solve the underlying problem.

In a recent guest editorial, Senator Wyden promised additional congressional hearings regarding management on the O&C lands. But, the promised hearings are not to consider any specific proposed legislation, they are to talk about the nature of the problem. The nature of the problem is already crystal clear. Even Governor Kitzhaber’s recent O&C Lands Report concluded that more study and more reports are unnecessary. More study and more talk is the politically polite way in Washington to avoid a difficult problem.

Other elected leaders have not been so timid. Congressman Schrader, Walden and DeFazio have worked tirelessly over the last year and a half to create a comprehensive management solution that has many environmental benefits while creating thousands of new jobs, revenue for the counties, and a sustainable flow of raw material for the timber industry. They have demonstrated great leadership. Governor Kitzhaber has also joined in the effort and his O&C Lands Report provided a menu of options that in combination could provide a management solution for the O&C lands.

Resource dependent counties in Oregon are in serious financial trouble. Rampant unemployment followed predictably by the social ills of substance abuse, gambling addiction, spousal abuse, school closures and increasing property crimes have become the norm in many of Oregon’s timber counties. Counties have been forced into letting prisoners out of jail and laying off scores of workers as essential services are slashed. Communities are forming vigilante-like organizations for their own protection and schools are reducing teaching days while we all watch one of our most valuable renewable resources, timber, either being locked up in environmental lawsuits, going up in smoke or falling prey to bugs and disease. Transferring thousands of acres of federal timberland to Tribes and locking up more thousands of acres in wilderness while only talking about the Counties’ interest in the O&C lands, is not what we expect of our leaders.

It is time for Oregon’s congressional delegation led by its Senior Senator to come together and provide a balanced management solution that addresses all of its interests in the O&C lands in one package, rather than separate proposals that pit one group against another. Counties should be front and center in any proposal affecting the O&C lands, along with consideration of Tribal interests and additional wilderness. As Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Wyden clearly has the power to solve a uniquely Oregon problem, if only he can muster the political will.

Update: click here to read the Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes’ coverage on this, including a follow-up statement from Commissioner Doug Robertson after Sen. Wyden committed to a no net loss policy to protect the O&C land base.