Senator Wyden writing bill to thin forests

The Associated Press

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) —
The Oregon Democrat told a round-table of timber industry leaders, conservation groups and federal agencies Wednesday that the public has made it clear it wants to protect old growth forests, and the national forests should be turning out a steady supply of logs for the timber industry, but that timber policy has varied widely depending on who is in the White House.

"The federal government has basically been fiddling while the forests go up in smoke," Wyden said. "This is about finding a way to break the gridlock."

On a related issue, Wyden said his primary goal in the coming Senate session was to pass a separate bill restoring federal payments to timber-dependent counties that have been hurt by cutbacks in logging on national forests.

Wyden, who hopes to introduce a bill next month, identified two key issues to break the thinning gridlock: the U.S. Forest Service lacks the funding it needs to do major thinning projects, and too many projects that log large trees to pay for thinning are being delayed by appeals and lawsuits.

He noted that less than 100,000 acres have been thinned since the 2003 Health Forest Restoration Act appropriated $760 million to reduce hazardous fuel buildups on 20 million acres of national forests.

Wyden said he was particularly interested in developing collaborative processes to identify objections early on, so they can be addressed without ending up in court. He added that he wants to maintain the rights of people to challenge logging projects they feel are wrong, but not in ways that create delays of up to five years.

Dave Schott of the Southern Oregon Timber Association said any meaningful effort to do large-scale thinning projects to save "your old growth" from fire would depend on making it pay for the timber industry, and that would require cutting both large and small trees.

Link Philippi of Rough & Ready Timber Co. noted that half the mills in the region cut only medium and large logs, not the small logs coming off thinning projects.

"If you put diameter limits on this process, it's not going to work," he said.

Joe Vaile of KS Wild, a conservation group, agreed the Forest Service needs more money to pay for thinning projects. With the housing industry in decline, log prices are low, and the traditional method of selling some big trees to pay for thinning small ones no longer works.

He added that he had been flabbergasted to hear the Forest Service tell Wyden at a recent hearing that it did not need more money for thinning.
Ashland City councilor Kate Jackson said the city had been able to break even on a thinning project in the Ashland Watershed a few years ago, but could not do so today with log prices so low.

Scott Conroy, supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said all his current thinning projects were in so-called matrix lands, where timber production is the primary goal, but they would have to be expanded into old growth forest reserves, where fish and wildlife habitat is the primary goal, if they are going to provide the logs the timber industry needs.

Asked by Wyden if he was talking about logging old growth forests, Conroy said projects would remove the smaller trees, leaving the old growth.