Published: Monday, January 23, 2012, 3:18 PM Updated: Monday, January 23, 2012, 5:11 PM
WASHINGTON -- A collection of environmental groups demanded Monday that negotiations to replace the county payment program be more public amid concerns that an emerging agreement could open 1.2 million acres federal land in Oregon to more logging while loosening environmental protections.
Oregon Reps. Greg Walden, a Republican and Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader have been working for months to designate about 2.4 million acres of federal land in Oregon as public “trusts.” Half of the acres would be managed as a conservation area wile the rest would be designated for commercial purposes, such as logging. Revenue from the logging would go to local counties replacing federal payments that have sustained them for years.
In a letter to the lawmakers, the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, Oregon Wild and five other groups said the process was a dangerous and a major departure from traditional protections. Shrouding it in darkness prevents the public from clearly understanding what ideas are being considered, the letter said. Other groups signing were: Cascadia Wildland, Coast Range Association, Geos Institute, The Larch Company, and KS Wild.
“You are all on the record advocating that very significant acreages of these public lands be transferred into a logging ‘trust,’ to be governed under weakened environmental safeguards,” the letter said. “This would be an enormous change in public forest policy, and have severe implications for the rest of America’s public lands system.
Specifically, the letter calls on the three lawmakers to “Publicly commit to an open and transparent process before attempting to move any legislation that would alter the management of (the) lands – including scientific review and sharing of legislative language.”
Walden did not respond to a request for comment.
Aides to DeFazio said he has had conversations with a wide variety of interests, including those who signed Monday’s letter. In a statement released by his office, DeFazio said, “We have been engaged in a substantive discussion of major provisions of the bill for the last two months with Chairman (Doc) Hastings and other majority members of the Natural Resources Committee.
“The negotiations are not concluded and once we have reached some agreement to move forward, we will be able to provide more detailed text. At that point I would like to have public hearings, markup, and observe regular legislative procedure through the subcommittee, full committee and full House. However, that process is up to the Republican majority,” the statement said.
No proposal has been publicly released and for now the major elements of likely legislation remain largely conceptual, congressional aides say. But they add that designating the lands as “trusts” controlled by local officials will allow the lands – and activity on them – to be governed by new rules that could make it easier and faster to cut timber while also limiting some legal appeals.
Doing that, said Steve Pedery, Oregon Wild’s conservation director, could undermine the Northwest Forest Plan, the landmark agreement reached in 1994 for managing federal forests in western Oregon, Washington, and northern California.
“Treating these lands as a piggy bank is not good policy … and it opens a Pandora’s Box,” he said.
Aides to DeFazio dispute that suggestion, saying any proposal would include language to protect the environment, such as requiring that the land meet the same state and federal standards that currently apply to private forests.
The county payments program was created in 2000 to reimburse counties for lost income from the sale of timber on federal lands. The funding is critical because in most of the counties, the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land, pinching the tax base and in some cases limiting the ability of local officials develop their local economy.
The payments were also acknowledgement that the federal government should help local governments after logging on federal land was reduced. Counties receive 25 percent of the revenue from timber sales but when logging plummeted, so did revenue. By law, the money was to be used to finance public education. In 2008, $250 million poured into 33 Oregon counties from the program.
-- Charles Pope