The Elliott State Forest, east of Reedsport, is but a sliver of some 30 million acres of private and public timberland in Oregon. But whether its trees can be cut according to state plan runs beneath a debate in the Legislature over logging on all state lands and those who would protest the practice.
A pair of bills recently introduced by Gold Beach Republican Rep. Wayne Krieger represents a get-tough stance that brings real consequence to forest protests. The ringer of the two, House Bill 2595, defines any action on state lands that slows or blocks a logging operation as criminal, a misdemeanor for first-time offenders and a felony for repeat offenders with jail time attached.
We get the sentiment. Logging in Oregon, to which public education funding is linked, has been down for more than two decades owing to species protection and disputes -- both in the woods and in the courts. Meanwhile, mills have closed, jobs have vanished and timber-dependent counties have suffered unduly from the loss of revenue.
But throwing the book at protesters will neither restore the cut nor tamp down on protests. What HB2595 would do, despite amendments that have softened the bill's penalties, is criminalize one form of civil disobedience. What about the hundreds who challenged businesses surrounding a couple of city blocks in 2011 during the tiring weeks of Occupy Portland?
State laws already allow Oregon district attorneys to prosecute protesters for disorderly conduct, trespassing, property damage and other forms of criminal mischief. Those who are so knuckleheaded as to conduct outright acts of ecoterrorism -- purposefully damaging equipment or placing lives in danger -- can face federal penalties, as well.
HB2595, passed by the House 43-12 but awaiting Senate Judiciary Committee action, goes too far in abridging personal freedoms while trying to pave the way to hindrance-free harvests. The bill should be sidelined as an earnest but flawed attempt to help step up the pace of logging.
We have little doubt, meanwhile, that loggers with a contract to cut trees on the Elliott in 2009 lost money because of work obstruction. Protesters had placed themselves in harm's way to prevent logging from going forward, and until the last of them was arrested and removed by state police, they succeeded in halting operations. It was the type of circus for which Krieger's companion proposal, House Bill 2596, would have made great sense.
This bill makes clear that any private firm allowed by Oregon to log on state land would have the right to file a civil lawsuit against protesters for financial damages incurred by disruptions associated with the protest. Passed by the House 51-4, the measure is smart because it attaches palpable, rather than punitive, consequence to actions that illegally bring financial harm.
Loggers must have reasonable expectation they will be able to log once they contracted to do so. If they are blocked by protesters, they should be able to charge for the downtime and associated losses. And those protesting should expect they might not only be arrested but face a judgment for those losses. The Senate should approve this measure.