The track left by the Northern Spotted Owl

By Sen. Doug Whitsett (distr 28)
for the Independent

Washington Congressman “Doc” Hastings, and our own Congressman Greg Walden, both understand that the restoration of sustainable timber harvest on federal forest lands is essential to restoring the economic health of rural communities.

Federally owned forests represent the primary resources, and most of the land mass, in many rural Oregon counties. The federal government does not pay property tax. The only way that these federal lands can be of economic benefit to local communities is through job creating activities on those federal lands and from revenue derived from the harvest of resources found on those lands.

The Congressmen are currently working on new federal legislation to restore timber harvest on both BLM controlled O&C land as well as on federally owned forests across the State. While the devil is always in the details of legislation, both of these plans are welcome news to beleaguered rural communities whose economies have been devastated by the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Northern spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in June of 1990. Virtually all timber harvest on federal forest lands with identifiable Northern Spotted Owl habitat was stopped by the order of the federal courts the next year.

Twenty years later, rural Oregon communities have been devastated by a 90 percent harvest reduction on federal forest lands. A very small percentage of the annual forest production on Oregon federal lands is currently being harvested. The rest is going to waste, accumulating and rotting in the forests, or worse, being incinerated in wildfires.

At least seven significant outcomes have followed the fateful listing of the Northern Spotted Owl.

First, the wholesale loss of forest product related jobs has resulted in chronic double digit joblessness. Underemployment continues to hover around 20 percent in most of Oregon’s rural communities.

Second, the infrastructure required to harvest and mill Oregon’s forest products has deteriorated to critical levels. Much of that infrastructure will need to be repaired, upgraded or replaced in order to handle a sustainable supply of forest materials.

Third, the capital required to rebuild the forest products infrastructure has migrated out of Oregon. Capital is mobile and has move to other states where it can be productive.

Fourth, the skilled labor force required to harvest Oregon’s federal forests may no longer exists within the State. After twenty years, these skilled employees have either moved out of Oregon, been retrained for other jobs or have retired.

Fifth, the loss of federal forest timber harvest revenue has crippled the ability of local governments to provide essential services in education, public safety and human services. Periodic federal grants in lieu of timber harvest receipts have helped but are inadequate and unreliable.

Sixth, the loss of federal forest timber harvest revenue has resulted in inadequate funding to manage Oregon’s federal forest lands. Healthy forests can only be achieved through funding derived from sustainable timber harvests.

Seventh, that failure of federal forest management has directly resulted in the unprecedented build-up of forest fuels and huge expanses of dead and dying trees. These unprecedented forest fuel loads have been the direct cause of uncontrollable wildfires that have consumed millions of acres of Oregon forest lands, and ironically, millions of acres of Northern Spotted Owl habitat.

In the year 2000, ten years after the Northern Spotted Owl was listed, Congress adopted the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self Determination Act. The original purpose of the Act was two-fold. First, it provided temporary funding to local governments to partially replace the lost revenue from timber harvest receipts. It also provided some funding for vocational training to help displaced and unemployed forest product workers to learn how to do other jobs not related to forest products.

The Act failed to accomplish its established goals because it did not address the root causes of the problem. The Act did provide revenue for local governments to replace much of the loss of timber harvest receipts. However, it did not address the loss of revenue that was previously created by an employed and thriving forest products workforce. Moreover, most of the former forest product employees who were successfully retrained were required to leave their rural communities in search of jobs where they could use their new skills.

The Act simply did not address any of the other critical issues.

Conversely, the Congressmen are addressing the core cause of the problem in their new legislation. That key issue is their attempt to restore sustainable timber harvest from Oregon federally owned forests.

The Congressmen understand that it is the 90 percent reduction of that timber harvest that is the overarching cause of both our rural economic malaise and our inability to manage our forest resources. Their efforts have my full attention and support because the passage of their legislation could create a prosperous new year and a thriving future for Oregon’s rural economies.

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