Opal Creek is blowing in the (political) wind


Since the wilderness battles of the early 1980s, Oregon forest activists have fought to protect Opal Creek, a lovely, nearly intact old-growth watershed on the western flank of the Oregon Cascades.

Last spring, Sen. Mark Hatfield announced that he would at last grant their wish. The Oregon Republican, retiring next January after 30 years in the Senate, introduced the Oregon Resources Conservation Act, a bill to protect nearly 26,000 acres of never-logged forest by establishing a wilderness and scenic and recreation area.

"I have always felt this area should be protected in perpetuity from commercial timber harvesting and mining," Hatfield intoned on the Senate floor.

Environmentalists were quick to note the irony. Hatfield has made a career out of wielding his power as chairman or ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee to benefit Oregon's timber industry. He withdrew support for protecting Opal Creek in the 1984 Oregon Wilderness Act and the 1988 Oregon Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. In 1994 he refused to support an Opal Creek protection bill sponsored by former Rep. Mike Kopetski, D-Ore.

"He could have done it with a snap of his fingers in 1984, or before or after," said Tim Lillebo of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "It's amazing to me he is doing it now."

Despite their surprise, or cynicism, groups such as ONRC initially supported the Opal Creek bill. It provided permanent protection for a remarkable old-growth forest, and the timber industry did not openly oppose the measure.

But the greased wheels started squeaking over the summer months. Hatfield, apparently viewing the Opal Creek bill as one of his last opportunities to complete some unfinished business, tacked on several contentious amendments. After four months of intense negotiations, ONRC pulled its support.

Its main gripe centered on a controversial federal land transfer to the Coquille Tribe. Hatfield initially wanted a proposal to transfer nearly 59,000 acres of BLM lands in western Oregon to the small tribe, based in the coastal town of Coos Bay. The Coquilles had lost their tribal status in 1954. However, in 1989, Hatfield helped the tribe regain federal recognition.

The "giveaway" of public lands smelled bad to the locals. In a rare show of unanimity, the timber industry, environmentalists, the Coos County Commission and the BLM attacked the plan, and in an advisory, Coos County voters overwhelmingly rejected it. Meanwhile, the tribe's economic development department became the subject of two federal investigations.

But this didn't dissuade Hatfield. Under a compromise worked out with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, he downsized the transfer to 5,000 acres and included language that, for the time being, would require the tribe to manage the lands under existing federal standards. Despite the changes, most environmental groups remain opposed to the transfer.

The bill contains other controversial measures. It would give formal powers and money to a working group that has been meeting since March to recommend projects for restoring the streams and marshes of the Upper Klamath Basin. Some conservationists charge that the group is dominated by agriculture. The bill also provides long-sought permanent protection for the Bull Run watershed on the western slope of Mount Hood, the source of Portland's pure, unfiltered drinking water. But that section too has drawn criticism, from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden among others, since it allows logging in a buffer zone.

Michael Donnelly, who has worked for years to protect Opal Creek, argues that Oregon would be better off with no bill than one riddled with compromises.

But Portland State University biology professor Trygve Steen fears some environmentalists are throwing away the positive aspects of the bill simply because they don't want Hatfield to leave an environmental legacy.

Steen says, "Without legal protection, Opal Creek will always be vulnerable to future logging."

Hatfield's bill won Senate approval by unanimous consent Aug. 2, but will face a big hurdle in the House. Oregon Rep. Jim Bunn, a Republican freshman whose district includes Opal Creek, thinks the bill protects too much federal land.

A Hatfield spokesperson says the senator is looking for another vehicle, perhaps an appropriations bill, to pass the Opal Creek bill in the last day of the 104th Congress.

For more information, call Hatfield's office at 202/224-3753; Friends of Opal Creek, 503/897-2921; or Oregon Natural Resources Council at 503/283-6343.

The writer works out of Portland, Oregon.