Legislative speakers warn ruling may cost 5,000 jobs

By Co-House Speakers Bruce Hanna & Arnie Roblan
Open letter in The Oregonian

There’s an environmental success story in Oregon’s timber industry you may not know about — one that’s helped forest owners protect our rivers and streams from pollution for more than 35 years while supporting tens of thousands of critical jobs in Oregon. That success story is the Oregon Forest Practices Act. Since 1971, this policy has helped protect soil, air, water, fish and wildlife, as well as forest resources, while also supporting one of Oregon’s top-producing industries: timber. But this balance between protecting our environment and supporting a critical natural-resource-based economy is at risk.

In 2010, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed more than 30 years of practice and ruled that forest roads are a “point source” of water pollution. That new classification would require forest owners to undergo an unnecessary, rigorous permitting process intended for other point sources such as sewage plants and factories.

The court’s decision to reclassify forest roads represents a break from judicial precedent, which has upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority under the Clean Water Act to identify the industries that present the greatest pollution threats to our waterways. The EPA has determined that forest roads are not a major contributor to pollution and are better managed by best forest practices established in each state — such as Oregon’s Forest Practices Act.

The current regulatory process is working and the timber industry needs certainty that it can continue, but if the 9th Circuit’s ruling is allowed to stand, Oregon would lose more than 5,000 jobs and $150 million in wages in our already depressed rural communities. The result would be new, unnecessary rules that do nothing to strengthen Oregon’s already stringent water quality protections, thousands of jobs lost and a further blow to an already struggling industry. Under this ruling, there would be no benefit to Oregon, only hardship.

Last week the EPA tried to address the uncertainty this ruling presents with a proposal for an administrative rulemaking process. While the stated intent is laudable, administrative rulemaking is not the answer. First, rulemaking does not protect the industry from the inevitable lawsuits that litigators are waiting to file, which are costly and would put an indefinite halt to timber-related business activity in Oregon. Second, rulemaking does not address the issue of forest roads as “non-point sources” of pollution. Third, there is still the option that a new rule could require new and unnecessary industrial discharge permits, which would cost Oregon jobs and wages.

At this point, the only true path to protect a regulatory system that works and supports a sustainable timber industry in Oregon and across the nation is an act of Congress. Congress and the Obama administration have provided leadership on this issue before, and they need to again. Last December, Congress passed legislation that temporarily prevented the 9th Circuit’s ruling from taking effect, but that protection expires in September. We need Congress and the president to make that legislation permanent, providing legal certainty for an important American industry and the tens of thousands of workers it employs. Anything short of permanent legislative action would lead to ongoing and costly litigation, lengthy administrative processes and lingering uncertainty for the timber industry, our state and our nation.

Oregonians are committed to maintaining healthy, sustainable forests. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s necessary for the long-term viability of the timber industry and rural communities. These unnecessary threats of increased costs, lost jobs and years of litigation could force forest owners to convert their land into other uses with far fewer benefits to water quality and our economy.

The bottom line is that rules exist that have protected rivers and streams in forestland from pollution for more than 30 years. Congress needs to protect these rules, rather than allow an uncertain rulemaking process to be subject to years of court battles or to allow the 9th Circuit’s misguided decision to muddy the water.

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