The eastside forest bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden recently passed the Senates Energy and Natural Resources Committee

In recent years, as the future of county timber payments remains in doubt, efforts have continued to open the forests to more active management.

Those who favor the approach hope to not only give the economy a boost and create more jobs, but also reduce the risk of wildfires.

Part of that effort includes the Eastside Forest Restoration, Old Growth Protection, and Jobs Act of 2013, sponsored by Democratic U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. The bill cleared a legislative hurdle last month when it passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The bill is being touted as legislation that brought timber executives and environmentalists together to develop an agreeable solution that benefits both groups.

"Senator Wyden's eastside forest bill represents a lifeline for the struggling forest economy of Eastern Oregon and the families and businesses that rely on it,” said John Shelk, president of Prineville-based Ochoco Lumber Company. “Through his efforts to find common ground on how to improve our forests and keep our mills operating, the Malheur National forest has quickly become a model for what can be achieved under his bill.”

If passed, the bill is intended to create a pilot program for the forests on the east side of Oregon to increase timber harvests and improve the health of old growth forests and watersheds. In addition, it would be the first legislative protection for trees older than 150 years, and would require a large-scale environmental impact assessment for projects with similar characteristics and set targets for the number of acres to be restored.

While the bill has drawn praise from Shelk and others, some stakeholders have taken exception with the legislation and have publicly denounced it. The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) issued a statement in late December, just prior to the bill passing committee that outlined their concerns.

“Senator Wyden’s legislation adds multiple, complex layers of restrictions, process, external review, and countless new opportunities for litigation to a federal forest management process that is already broken,” said AFRC president Tom Partin. “If enacted, this legislation would further disconnect the economies and social needs of Eastern Oregon's rural communities and management of these national forests.”

In support of his bill, Wyden stated that eastern Oregon is down to just a handful of surviving timber mills and without them, there will be no restoration of the state’s eastside forests and jobs they provide.

“That’s why focusing on projects that stakeholders can agree need to be done and providing greater certainty of timber supply is so important,” he said.

As Wyden’s bill navigates the legislative process, local leaders have joined timber executives, conservation group representatives, and members of state and federal game agencies on a project designed to develop a treatment plan for Ochoco National Forest land. Like Wyden’s bill, the intent is to encourage more active management of the forest and increase jobs and limit wildfires in the process.

The group has been meeting monthly for nearly two years and is closing in on a management plan for a portion of the local forest.

“We are trying to do something on this 25,000 acres they call the Wolf Watershed,” explained Crook County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren, a member of the group. “Of the 25,000 acres, treatment will be about 6,000 acres of that.”

The group has reached a point, after meeting and developing a forest management strategy, that they are ready to deliver a treatment recommendation to the Forest Service.

“With that recommendation, they will go forward with what prescribed cutting might look like. That will be coming out in the spring,” Fahlgren said. “We want to thin the forest. We want to treat the forest in a way that would be safer from fire.”

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