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Wyden: Congress can pass wildfire, O&C bills this year

But Senate must reconcile differences with House.


U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden wants to resolve two issues affecting federal forests before the end of the current Congress.

One is a shift in how the federal government pays for fighting the biggest wildfires in national forests. Those costs have consumed larger shares of the Forest Service budget over the past two decades and forced it to tap money meant for conservation or fire prevention work.

The other is how federal forest lands in western Oregon, once owned by the Oregon & California (O&C) Railroad, should be managed for timber production, environmental protection and county benefits.

Although senators may be close to agreement, their versions differ from what their House counterparts want or have passed.

“Forestry issues are never for the faint-hearted,” says Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who left the chairmanship of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this year to lead the Finance Committee.

Still, Wyden says, there is a basis for optimism, “and I am committed to getting them both passed this year. We’re going into the home stretch.”

Wyden spoke at a meeting Tuesday with the Portland Tribune editorial board.

His wildfire funding bill, jointly sponsored with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, may get new life from a report issued Wednesday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Forest Service.

The report says that the share of the Forest Service budget devoted to wildfire costs has jumped from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent this year.

The Wyden-Crapo bill would allow the Forest Service to tap a multi-billion federal fund for natural disasters, instead of raid funds meant for other forest programs, to pay for the largest wildfires.

Senators had planned to attach it to another must-pass bill before the congressional recess, but it got caught up in political maneuvering.

Meanwhile, in the House, majority Republicans sidetracked a different bill by Idaho Republican Mike Simpson and Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader to create a wildfire reserve funded at $2.7 billion a year for seven years.

In Oregon, national forests account for 14.3 million acres, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. An equal amount of forest acreage is in private lands and Bureau of Land Management lands, where wildfires are fought by the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Until he became chairman of the Finance Committee, Wyden led the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where he crafted his version of forestry legislation.

Wyden’s proposal to resolve the standoff on 2.4 million acres of O&C forest lands in western Oregon — covering 17 counties west of the Cascades, excluding Clatsop, plus Klamath County — differs from a version already passed by the House.

Among the House sponsors are Schrader, Republican Rep. Greg Walden and Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio.

The average annual timber production on those O&C lands was about 150 million board feet during the past decade; in 2012, it was 167 million board feet.

Wyden’s proposal would boost the amount to between 300 and 350 million board feet annually, short of the 500 million board feet projected in the House version. During some years in the 1970s and 1980s, the annual production was 1 billion board feet.

Wyden’s proposal would provide new protections for 1 million acres, including 87,000 more acres of wilderness and 165 miles of federal wild and scenic rivers. It also would provide for expedited, large-scale environmental reviews.

Unlike the House version, Wyden’s proposal does not provide for state management of federal forest lands under a trust arrangement. Wyden says such a provision is likely to draw a veto from President Barack Obama, even if it could pass muster with the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Wyden does envision the continuance of federal safety-net payments to timber-dependent counties. The payments were authorized in a law he sponsored in 2000, when Congress severed a historic link of payments to past timber production. Payments were renewed in 2008 for four years, and last year for an additional year; the latter was financed by the sale of the national helium reserve.

Although counties would benefit from increased timber production, he says, “there is no way you can get the harvest level up to not need a continued safety net.”

Wyden has been the target of a campaign to get him to back off his version. But he says neither timber nor environmental advocates can prevail if there is to be any legislation.

Wyden says it will be similar to what happened more than a decade ago, when he steered Senate passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act signed by President George W. Bush. The 2003 law affected forests east of the Cascades.

“What I’ve always done is isolate the extremes,” he says. “We’ve got industry people who want to take the cut back to fantasy levels, which is not constructive. We’ve got environmental people … who were picketing me over the timber payments law.”

peterwong@PortlandTribune.com

(503) 385-4899

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