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for people who care about the West

Cooking up a whopper on federal land in Oregon

 

Here in Oregon, the dinosaurs are stirring. The brontosaurs of big timber, almost at their last gasp, are making one last power play, and it's a WOPR, pronounced — how else? — "whopper," which stands for Western Oregon Plan Revisions.

What's being revised are management plans for six Bureau of Land Management districts in western Oregon, which together account for 2.6 million acres of public land.

The plan is an indigestible mess that began to get cooked up three years ago in an out-of-court settlement between the American Forest Resource Council — the timber industry dinosaurs — and the Bush administration. In 1994, the adoption of the Northwest Forest Plan protected much of the surviving remnants of old-growth forest in the range of the Northern spotted owl. Ever since, the timber industry has been trying to overturn the plan and gain access to the final 10 percent to 15 percent of the Northwest's old-growth forests that they haven't yet logged.

In Oregon, the dinosaurs' legal strategy centered on BLM lands in the state that are governed by a prehistoric law called the Oregon and California Revested Railroad Lands Act of 1937, or O&C; Act, as it's known.The American Forest Resource Council lawsuit asserted that this law required "sustainable" logging everywhere, and that the protection of old-growth forests by the Northwest Forest Plan was illegal, because it interfered with this universal logging.

The timber industry's litigation went nowhere until 2003, when the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior surrendered without a fight. They accepted an out-of-court settlement, agreeing to revise the management plans for all Oregon BLM lands included in the Northwest Forest Plan. They further agreed to consider at least one alternative that opened up logging of all old-growth forests on these railroad lands. The only off-limits areas would be small buffers around Spotted Owl nest sites, required to obey the pesky Endangered Species Act. Under their new interpretation of the O&C; Act, BLM flatly stated that "lands cannot be removed from the (timber) land base solely to protect relevant and important features."

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the fate of BLM's forests in Oregon has already been decided. But first, of course, there's a process to go through. In March, the Bureau of Land Management completed its six-month "scoping" for WOPR, during which several thousand public comments and one detailed public proposal were received.

The priorities of the public "community-conservation alternative" were to protect all remaining mature and old-growth forest on BLM land, to shift BLM management toward ecological restoration, and to assist timber-dependent communities through job creation and community stabilization projects. Such projects include forest-fuels reduction, stream restoration, forest road maintenance and decommissioning, and development of recreational facilities for forest-based tourism.

Throughout the West, formerly timber-dependent communities are pursuing projects like these as they adapt to new opportunities. But the dinosaurs of big logging are not interested in adapting, and, neither it seems, is the Bureau of Land Management.

BLM has now released the "possible action alternatives" that it will consider, and the community-conservation alternative failed to make the list. Instead, along with the legally required no-action alternative, there is one that would spare some old-growth yet gut streamside protections; and two alternatives that would abolish all old-growth protections and log everything, one a bit more slowly than the other. In other words, the choices range from bad to worse to worst.

The public lands that BLM manages in Oregon are a priceless treasure, vital to the integrity of the Northwest Forest Plan, essential for the survival of the Northern spotted owl, and irreplaceable for recreation activities like hiking, hunting and fishing. Their rivers and streams are critical for endangered stocks of salmon. Because most of these lands are low-elevation, their forests are highly productive, and they provide essential connections between higher-elevation national forests.

It seems, however, that the dinosaurs of the timber industry will not be satisfied until every last acre is slicked off. But wait: These lands are our lands; the last old-growth forests on BLM lands anywhere in the United States. As demonstrated by studies of everything from hydrology to ecotourism, old-growth forests like these are worth far more alive than dead, ecologically and economically. One way or another, we need to make sure that this WOPR ends up where it belongs — in the compost pile.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.