A sweeping federal forest bill that would hike timber harvests in western Oregon cleared its first major congressional hurdle on Wednesday.
The controversial bill has been eagerly sought by rural Oregon counties hard-hit economically by the decline of logging over the last two decades, but denounced by environmentalists as a return to the days of massive clear-cuts on federal lands.
The House Natural Resources Committee approved the bill, which also calls for major increases in logging on federal lands throughout the country. It incorporates separate legislation sought by three Oregon congressmen -- Democrats Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and Republican Greg Walden -- to increase timber production on lands once owned by the now-defunct Oregon & California Railroad.
"Today was the first really big step in putting in place a long-term solution for the solvency and prosperity of the O&C counties in Oregon," said DeFazio, who this month became the ranking Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee.
Walden, a member of the House Republican leadership, predicted that the House would take up the bill in September after a monthlong recess.
If the bill passes the House, it will set up negotiations with the Democratic Senate -- where Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has vowed to develop his own O&C legislation.
Wyden said he too wants to provide some additional logging, but not at the expense of sweeping aside federal environmental laws.
Putting together a compromise that could pass both chambers and be signed into law is widely regarded as a tough task, but on Wednesday, Wyden and the Oregon House members sounded optimistic.
"Everyone feels the same sense of urgency about creating jobs in rural Oregon and provide O&C counties with a stable source of funding while protecting water, old growth and critical habitat," said Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee. "Sen. Wyden is confident that the details of how we get there can be worked out over time."
DeFazio said the Senate is unlikely to accept provisions in the overall House billthat would mandate higher logging levels in national forests. In fact, he said he didn't yet know whether he would support the bill in the House because of several "problematic provisions" that Democrats on the committee were unable to change.
But DeFazio said a compromise could be crafted around provisions in the House bill aimed at improving forest health and reducing their vulnerability to massive fires. He noted that Wyden and the House resources chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., met earlier this year to begin laying the groundwork for a compromise.
Watching nervously is the environmental community, which argues that harvest levels can only be increased modestly on the O&C lands without damaging the habitat.
"Oregonians should be outraged that the first thing Rep. DeFazio has done as ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee is to partner with one of the most anti-environmental legislators in Congress on a bill that represents the worst threat to the nation's public lands in a generation," said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild, in a statement.
DeFazio countered that the O&C legislation includes important new environmental protections for the Molalla, Rogue and Chetco rivers as well as additional wilderness designations.
Under the House bill, about 1.6 million of the 2.8 million acres of the Oregon & California lands would be placed in a trust managed by the state for more intensive logging. Officials estimate the bill would increase harvests from less than 200 million board-feet annually to more than 500 million board-feet.
In addition, the House bill also would extend the now-expired federal program to provide federal payments to timber-dependent counties to support local services.