Obama and media botch WOPR timber opportunity

By Sean Smith,
Vice President, Starfire Lumber Co.

On July 16, the Department of the Interior, acting on a number of pretexts failing even the most cursory legal scrutiny, summarily withdrew the Western Oregon Plan Revision (WOPR) and placed the timber sale program on 2.5 million acres of land in southwest Oregon in limbo.  This hasty, ill-considered decision means more years of uncertainty and distress for the long-suffering communities and timber industry in the affected region.

By way of background, WOPR was the culmination of well over a decade of legal wrangling which started with a lawsuit brought by a consortium of interests in 1994.  The plaintiffs in that lawsuit correctly alleged that by including the Oregon and Californian Railroad and Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands (collectively, the O&C Lands) in the restrictive management scheme prescribed by the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994, federal land management and wildlife agencies were violating the O&C Act of 1937.

The O&C Act specifically designated timber production to help fund schools and local governments as the predominate use of the O&C Lands.  Lumping them in with the 24 million odd acres of national forests and other federal lands which were to be managed under the Northwest Forest Plan primarily for habitat preservation was clearly an illegal use of the O&C Lands.

The 1994 lawsuit was settled with a 2003 agreement between the various plaintiffs and the federal government, wherein the latter agreed to a resource management plan revision (later dubbed “WOPR”) bringing the O&C Lands into compliance with the Act, and which would be completed no later than December 31, 2008.  In just over five years, armies of staff from the six BLM districts containing O&C Lands worked in conjunction with staffers from the BLM state office in Portland to make this happen.  In its final form, WOPR was the most rigorously worked, thoroughly vetted resource management plan ever conceived by any land management agency.  Ever.  It provided for more than a doubling of the timber harvests off the O&C Lands compared to the Northwest Forest Plan (although this would still be less than half of what the lands could produce on a sustained yield—cutting no more than the amount that grows each year), as well as stream protection, increased protection from insects, disease and wildfire threats, and the restoration and enhancement of wildlife habitat throughout the region.

Then with a stroke of a pen by the Acting Assistant Secretary of Interior for Land and Minerals, WOPR became a puff of smoke.

The allegations of “legal error” and improper influence by a certain long-departed Fish & Wildlife official are tedious to recount and beyond the scope of this brief update.  Suffice it to say they are, in the case of some, specious and, in the case of others, entirely meritless.  In sum, the Obama Interior Department could not act quickly enough to appease its radical preservationist patrons, and literally tripped over itself in its zeal to unravel five years of work by hundreds of ernest professionals, demoralizing the career staff of an agency in the process.

Reporting by the mainstream media throughout the life and—for now—death of the WOPR has been predictably misleading and irresponsible.  Were one to read every last article ever published on the “Bush” plan to effect a “sweetheart deal with the timber industry,” that would “double logging” on public lands, one would be at a loss to find any language whatsoever clarifying that WOPR only addresses lands that were already specifically designated by federal law to be primarily used for timber production, and which in any case comprise only about 8% of the forestlands in Oregon.

With BLM’s timber sale program in the six districts adrift following the withdrawal of WOPR, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar offered to put up a very limited number of sales which will offer, in total, what would have been less than a year’s supply of timber under the Northwest Forest Plan.  This consolation prize cherry picks a handful of sales, most of which involve non-economical thinning operations, which are unlikely to be enjoined by litigation.  It does nothing to address the need for the constant, predictable, long-term timber supply WOPR sought to secure.  This one-shot deal does not even approach a solution.  We can expect these issues to remain locked up in court for the foreseeable future.

In an effort to counter this brazen act by the new administration, a group consisting of a timber industry association, three forest products companies and a labor union filed a lawsuit last month challenging Interior’s legal right to summarily “withdraw” a resource management plan without going through the administrative procedures legally required for such a decision.  I will continue to keep readers of the Oregon Report updated as this lawsuit progresses.

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