Photo by Ellen Miller

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Jobs vs. environment at Oregon legislature as timber and water bills get pushed upstream

Published: Tuesday, February 14, 2012, 6:57 PM     Updated: Tuesday, February 14, 2012, 7:45 PM
A bill in the Oregon House wants to increase the timber harvest on state lands.
A pair of bills that occupy the jobs vs. environment mosh pit this legislative session got early hearings Tuesday, with both sides bringing big hopes and dire projections to the match.
House Bill 4098 would set the logging level in state forests at a fixed percent of how much timber grows each year, waiving the Oregon Department of Forestry's current rules. House Bill 4101 requires the state to "aggressively pursue" drawing more agricultural irrigation water from the Columbia River.
Republicans in the Legislature have made the two bills a priority, saying they would generate jobs and increase state revenue. The Oregon Conservation Network, a coalition of more than 50 environmental groups, labels the bills a "major threat." Most Democrats in the Legislature lean to the conservation groups' point of view, but the slow pace of economic recovery has a way of changing votes.
The timber bill springs from frustration over the continued deadlock in federal forests, which make up 60 percent of Oregon's timberland but provide only 12 percent of the harvest. State forests, though only 4 percent of the land, provide 10 percent of the annual harvest. Rather than wait for a solution on federal land, advocates say the state should increase the flow of logs to mills, retain jobs and support rural communities. Industry, rural officials and union leaders back the bill.
"We are here in Oregon and have the ability to do something very simple to put about 2,000 people back to work," said Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, the bill's chief sponsor.
The bill would set timber harvests at an unsustainable level, said Ivan Maluski of the Sierra Club. "It's characterized as a major jobs bill, but to us it looks more like an ideological bill," he said.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, who has called for increased logging on federal land and an end to "management by paralysis," said mandating timber production on state land might make things worse. Testifying Tuesday before the House agriculture and natural resources committee, the governor said the bill rejects the department's long-held practice of managing forests for the "greatest permanent value." He said collaboration and reversing the imbalance on federal land is key.
State forests produce about 210 million board feet of timber annually. Forestry Department Deputy Chief Mike Cafferata estimated the bill would increase annual harvest to 280 million to 290 million board feet.
State Forester Doug Decker, under sharp questioning from Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley, said the harvest increase could be implemented without violating the Oregon Forest Practices Act.
The committee approved the bill and sent it the House ways and means committee for further action.
Columbia River 
The Columbia River would have more water pulled from it under legislation in the Oregon Legislature.
The Columbia River irrigation bill aims to create about 1,400 jobs by providing more water for farmers. It calls for 100,000 extra acre-feet a year, which supporters said is enough to irrigate 30,000 acres of dry agricultural land.
Farmers of irrigated crops, including alfalfa, potatoes and corn, in arid northeastern Oregon worry about water. Groundwater use is restricted in parts of Umatilla and Morrow counties, with predictions of even tighter summer supplies if global warming proceeds as projected.
The conflict comes because the Columbia basin's salmon and steelhead, including runs listed under the Endangered Species Act, need water, too, particularly during the warm, dry summer growing season when young fish migrate to the ocean. Concerns about fish have limited new water withdrawals for years.
On Tuesday, the House Energy, Environment and Water Committee amended the bill to knock down withdrawals from the 450,000 acre-feet a year originally proposed. The amendment also leaves it up to Oregon's Water Resources Department to hash out details, instead of a task force that salmon and river advocates criticized as stacked against them.
But the changes didn't eliminate criticism.
John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, noted the amendment adds the new withdrawals on top of total withdrawals in 2011, a wet year. That would put the state in a bind during dry years, he said.
The bill also calls for examination of "new mitigation options" when additional river water is diverted. Opponents see that as code for something short of Oregon's policy of fully replacing any new water taken from the mainstem Columbia from April 15 to Sept. 30.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, the bill's chief sponsor, told the committee his intent is to boost winter storage, either above or below ground, for later use, not to tap spring or summer flows. Supporters range from farmers to business groups.
About 33 million acre feet a year are diverted from rivers in the huge Columbia basin, with Idaho taking nearly 60 percent, the Water Resources Department estimates. Oregon diverts about 5 million acre feet. The bill would require a minimum 100,000 acre-feet increase for irrigation by the end of 2018.
Some committee Democrats said they could support the bill if language is added to limit new drawdowns solely to winter flows. The committee voted to refer the bill the House Rules Committee for further debate.
"It's not over yet," said Rep. Deborah Boone, D-Cannon Beach. "I think we can get this done."

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