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Columnist: Oregon's rural counties have suffered under decades of forest mismanagement.

Oregon's state forests are on the precipice of more change and, by all indications, more pain for Oregon's rural counties. BANGS

With a stated goal of improving financial and conservation outcomes, the Oregon Department of Forestry is engaged in a closed-door negotiation with the federal government over a Western Oregon Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act. The 15 Oregon counties, which donated these lands to the state in exchange for revenue from sustainable timber harvests, have not been allowed a vote or a voice in the decision-making process.

Without the counties at the table regarding a plan that will tie the state's hands on forest management for the next 70 years, the Department of Forestry has proposed to set aside far more acres than is necessary for what is needed for habitat protection. Once again, rural communities are being asked to pick up the tab. This is the same process, or lack thereof, the state used in 1998 to reduce timber revenues to the counties and which is currently at the center of a lawsuit by the counties that is heading to the Oregon Supreme Court.

The draft plan will further reduce county revenues by an estimated 38% from already reduced levels. Instead of inviting counties and local districts to participate in creating a sustainable plan to protect wildlife and sustain local economies, they have created an unsustainable and flawed plan for resource management. In meetings of the Board of Forestry, staff continually refers to federal government agencies as "their partner" in this process. Not once have I ever heard them refer to any Oregon county officials as "partners." The unwillingness of state officials to recognize a common bond with elected county officials is disheartening.

The plan is focused heavily on habitat creation and hope that endangered species will show up. I will give an example of one of the many flaws in the plan. ODF will be following a failed federal forest model that's over 30 years old. Federal forestland was shut down from timber harvesting to protect the northern spotted owl's population in the 1980s and 1990s. Over the last 30 years, the northern spotted owl population continues to decline. Habitat creation, alone, is not a guarantee of success. Recent science now shows the rapid decline is also attributed heavily to population growth of another owl species, the barred owl, which is rooting spotted owls from their habitat. The response by the government is to use shotguns to kill barred owls to protect spotted owls. I find that particular action ethically challenging because 17 years of scientific research has shown that barred owl removal and habitat does not stop the decline of the spotted owl, it only slows it. I don't support 70 years of continual murder of a healthy species on the "hope" that another species might prevail, especially when science already proves a net negative outcome.

I do support a habitat conservation plan and preserving our valuable resources for future generations. However, we should not accept a plan promulgated by disregarding science and impacts to local communities. It is disturbing that members of the Oregon Board of Forestry, who must ultimately sign off on this 70-year plan, appear surprised in a recent meeting to learn they will have no say in selecting any plan alternatives other than the one staff is creating on their own. Staff, not the board is running the show.

There is still time to course correct, scrap the ODF staff's plan, and initiate a new Habitat Conservation Plan that will be inclusive of all parties impacted by the final decision. We should not replicate the same failed process that already has the state and its counties fighting in the Supreme Court. Oregonians deserve better than that.

Courtney Bangs is a Clatsop County commissioner serving District 4 and lives in Astoria.

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