“Ecological Forestry” Mandate: Wyden O&C Bill Analysis, Pt 1

Margaret Goodwin_thb

by Margaret Goodwin

Three Important Facts about the O&C Lands

When talking about the O&C lands, it’s important to understand three things. The first is that the O&C lands represent a very small fraction of the federal forest lands in Oregon. Oregon has about 30 million acres of forest lands, approximately 20 million acres of which are managed by the federal government. The O&C lands comprise only 2.1 million acres, about 10% of the federal forest lands in Oregon.

The second thing it’s important to understand is that the O&C lands were originally intended to be under private ownership. Shortly after Oregon became a state, Congress granted these lands to the Oregon & California Railroad Company to be sold to homesteaders to raise funds for building the Oregon portion of the O&C Railroad. The railroad company violated the terms of the grant, and the federal government took the lands back.

Withdrawing these lands from private ownership removed them from the tax rolls of the counties in which they’re located. In some O&C counties, over 70% of the total land is federally owned. Recognizing that there were insufficient privately owned lands in these counties to sustain a viable economy, Congress passed the O&C Lands Act of 1937. However, rather than restoring the O&C lands to private ownership, this Act dedicated these lands to permanent sustained-yield forest management to provide “a permanent source of raw materials for the support of dependent communities and local industries of the region.” 50% of all O&C timber revenues were dedicated to support local government services.

The third thing that’s necessary to understand is the meaning of “sustained yield,” which is an important conservation principle that’s at the very core of the 1937 O&C Lands Act. Simply put, sustained yield means that you can’t harvest more timber in a year than the annual rate of regrowth. So, at the end of each year, the total quantity of standing timber in the forest is at least as great as it was at the beginning, and the forest is never depleted.

In the late 1930s, the O&C lands had a standing inventory of 44 billion board feet of merchantable timber. In 1995, after nearly 60 years of sustained-yield management under the O&C Lands Act of 1937, the standing inventory had increased by 36% to about 60 billion board feet. During that same period, over 45 billion board feet of timber were harvested, sustaining thousands of family-wage jobs and keeping local economies afloat.[1]

Wyden Redefines Sustained Yield

The O&C Lands Act of 1937 was three pages long. The bill Senator Ron Wyden has introduced to replace it is 188 pages long. It includes a provision that an advisory panel will review its effectiveness every ten years and, if it isn’t achieving its goals, the panel will submit a report to Congress recommending further legislation. This is typical of big government zealots. When legislation fails to achieve its purpose, instead of repealing a bad law, their solution is to keep cranking out new laws to try to patch it up.

Here are some key differences between Wyden’s law and the O&C Lands Act of 1937 with respect to timber production.

  1. The O&C Lands Act of 1937 mandates that the O&C lands shall be managed for permanent forest production in conformity with the principle of sustained yield. The Wyden bill divides the O&C lands into Forestry emphasis areas and Conservation emphasis areas, permanently withdrawing more than half of these lands from forest production.
  2. Wyden’s bill also redefines the meaning of “sustained yield” from the traditionally understood principle that annual harvests don’t exceed the annual rate of regrowth to “the timber yield that can be sustained under a specific management intensity consistent with multiple-use objectives.” The “specific management intensity” is undefined, but the bill later specifies that it’s to be “calculated assuming an ecological forestry approach.”
  3. Wyden’s bill further mandates that the Forestry emphasis areas shall be managed according to “ecological forestry” principles. “Ecological forestry” is a methodology developed by environmentalist university professors Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin that focuses on developing and maintaining landscapes that mimic natural forest development.

The management priorities mandated for the “Forestry emphasis” areas read more like conservation management priorities than timber management priorities. For example, these are the management priorities for moist forests in the Forestry emphasis areas.

(A)   Retention of “old growth” (defined as 150+ years for individual trees or 120+ years for stands).

(B)   Retention of “older trees” (defined as 100-150 years) where practicable.

(C)   Accelerated development of structural complexity.

(D)   Retention of approximately 1/3 of the initial live basal area (not including “old growth”) after any harvest, in addition to 100% retention of “old growth.”

(E)    Development and maintenance of early seral ecosystems with diverse species following harvests.

(F)    Rotations of sufficient length to allow stands to develop structural complexity and biodiversity characteristics of late successional stands.

(G)  Development of multi-aged, mixed species stands on harvest rotation periods of 80-120 years.

In the management priorities for dry forests in the Forestry emphasis areas, retention and protection of snags and logs is listed second, well above timber harvesting “during the restoration process,” which is down near the bottom of the list.

Impact on Timber Dependent Counties

Clearly, the redefined sustained yield, calculated using the “ecological forestry” approach, would be significantly smaller than under the traditional definition of sustained yield. While that, alone, would be very detrimental to the O&C counties, Wyden’s bill actually applies this revised mandate to fewer than half of the O&C lands. The rest of these lands, which are mandated under existing law for “permanent forest production,” would be permanently withdrawn from forest production. Wyden’s bill sets aside over half of the O&C lands for “Conservation emphasis” and a whole slew of other designations described in Part 2 of this analysis.

Eighteen O&C counties depend on timber revenues from these lands for the maintenance of critical government services. The economies of these counties are highly dependent on jobs from logging, hauling, milling, and replanting trees, as well as jobs in support industries like lumber and construction, and the retail and service jobs that are supported by those employed in the timber-related industries.

Last year, in Swanson vs. Salazar, the court ordered the BLM to comply with the sustained yield mandate in the O&C Act. That ruling is now under appeal by environmental activist groups. Wyden’s bill, with its redefinition of sustained yield and its ecological forestry mandate, would eliminate the legal basis for compelling the BLM sell more timber on the O&C lands. It would also give environmental activists more legal grounds for litigation based on the voluminous provisions of the ecological forestry mandate.

Passage of this bill would surely sound the death knell for the already beleaguered economies of the eighteen O&C counties.

Part 2 of this analysis, Appeasement Doesn’t Work, examines the rest of Wyden’s bill, and particularly addresses the section that he claims will lead to increased timber harvests. [Part 2 will run in Oregon Catalyst tomorrow, Sunday 2/16/2014]

[1] O&C Lands Desk Reference, Association of O&C Counties, http://www.oandccounties.com/PDF/BLM.pdf