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O&C Land Exchange

What happens if big timber gets the old growth?

When I pointed out to EW (12/5/13 news story) that Sen. Ron Wyden’s recently released O&C forestlands bill (SB 1784) includes a “land exchange” loophole (Sec. 117) big enough to drive public wilderness and old-growth forests into private hands, Seneca Sawmill’s general manager Todd Payne objected [Letters 1/16]. Payne says that Seneca “does not consume old-growth timber in any of its manufacturing facilities,” and my “implication” that it does “is just a continuation of the ‘fear-based’ messaging by environmental organizations as they know they can’t stand behind the truth.”

Wow, strong words. But, I never said that Seneca uses old-growth timber in its own mills. I said that Wyden’s bill would allow Seneca to “get” old growth under the guise of consolidating the O&C checkerboard lands. I can only speculate as to what Seneca might do with its newly acquired big trees.

Perhaps Seneca would deed these irreplaceable ancient forests to the Nature Conservancy and take a tax write-off for its charitable contribution? That would sure be nice, but not likely.

Or maybe Seneca would log the old growth and sell the big trees to some other mill that does process large logs? Indeed, that’s what Seneca (and every other “small” log company) now does when old-growth timber comes into its possession. And there’s a pretty penny to be made, too, from these big logs. Clear, vertical-grain Douglas fir is a premium product used for construction in the finest homes. Woodworking Network points out “the raw log cost is tremendous” for knot-free Douglas fir, which means tremendous profits for old-growth forest owners.

In 1995, Seneca’s owner Aaron Jones proposed the Umpqua Land Exchange, which would have done precisely what Wyden’s bill now allows — the exchange of private clearcuts for public old growth. Seneca’s lobbyist persuaded Congress to spend $6 million to justify and promote the Umpqua exchange. The project died stillborn in 2004 when the money ran out.

Wyden’s O&C bill revives the Umpqua Land Exchange and, in fact, expands its scope to all 2.6 million O&C acres. Nothing would be off limits from exchange, including the proposed Devil’s Staircase wilderness, ancient forests and streams used for domestic water supplies. The bill includes no safeguards or public process; exchanges would be backroom deals between the interior secretary du jour and private timberland owners. The only “public interest” criterion an exchange would have to meet is that it “improves efficiency.” Of course, with the O&C checkerboard ownership pattern, any exchange could be justified as “improving efficiency.”

If efficiency is all that matters, why not just sell the public’s O&C lands to the highest bidder? That’s the first choice of timber industry and the Association of O&C Counties. But no legislator would support a western Oregon-wide sale of federal land. What timber interests can’t get through the front door of a land sale, they’ll try to sneak through the back door of a land exchange.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m wrong, that I’m just a “fear-based” environmentalist. Maybe Seneca doesn’t want to exchange its cut-over land for federal timber. If so, I invite Payne and Aaron Jones to join me in asking Wyden to delete the land exchange provision from his O&C bill. Existing federal law already allows for land exchanges, done through an open and public process that protects our land, air, water, fish, wildlife and recreation.

Why Wyden would propose a secret process that provides none of these protections is beyond me. If he can be persuaded to dump this ill-conceived exchange provision, the balance of his O&C lands solution could get the fair hearing it merits.