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Critical Details Hidden In Wyden Forest Bill

Sen. Ron Wyden released his long-awaited company bill to Rep. Peter DeFazio’s O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act on Nov. 26, shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday. Environmental organizations such as Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands immediately greeted the bill, which calls for “ecological forestry” on the controversial public lands, with disappointment and criticism. Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics says buried within the bill’s language is a section that makes everything else in the bill become “irrelevant.” 

The O&C lands, which are laid out in a checkerboard pattern, make up roughly 2 million acres of primarily Bureau of Land Management lands and have historically been logged to generate money for counties. The timber industry has argued the lands should be logged, while conservationists seek to preserve the forests, particularly old-growth and native stands, for recreation, wildlife, clean water and to protect against global warming.

Wyden says his bill will “more than double our timber harvest across 18 timber counties and ensure that harvest continues for years to come.” And the senator says the bill will ensure “old growth stands in moist forests currently over 120 years old and trees over 150 years old across the O&C landscape cannot be harvested.”

But Stahl says that language on page 119 of the 188-page bill overrides everything else. Section 117 Land Ownership Consolidation “directs BLM to consolidate the checkerboard pattern of O&C land.” The section continues, “BLM is authorized to sell or exchange federal land that is no longer necessary or appropriate for continued federal management in order to consolidate land, to improve management efficiency and productivity, or to improve the conservation value on the federal land.” 

The bill language says that the BLM is to “review and inventory federal land to identify lands suitable for sale or exchange with private or state-owned lands” within six months of enactment.

This section applies to “covered land” in the bill, Stahl says, which is everything from old growth to proposed wilderness. He compares the language to the failed Umpqua Land Exchange Project back in the late 1990s and early 2000s that called for consolidating checkerboard BLM lands in the Coast Range. “It’s the Umpqua Land Exchange writ large,” Stahl says. 

That land exchange was first proposed by Aaron Jones of Seneca Timber Company, who owned nearby land. Critics at the time said the exchange was designed to increase logging levels, not help wildlife.

Stahl says timber interests such as Seneca whose lands border the O&C forests would again stand to benefit from an O&C land exchange and would “get old growth under the guise of consolidating federal lands.” 

Tom Towslee, Wyden’s state communications director, says, “Technically any lands covered by the bill could be covered by an exchange. However, an exchange could take place only if the [Interior] Secretary determined it was in the public interest to do so.”