Environment, News, OREGON

Plan to reduce logging, protect habitat in Oregon’s western state forests passes on split vote

Following years of planning, tense negotiations and heated public comment, a landmark plan to reduce logging in Oregon’s western state forests to protect threatened species is nearing the finish line.

The Oregon Board of Forestry on Thursday voted to advance the Western Oregon State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan. It next goes to federal agencies for approval, and is likely to be finalized by early 2025, according to Board Chair Jim Kelly. 

Kelly is among four of the seven board members who voted to advance the plan to federal agencies at the Thursday meeting. 

If implemented, it will regulate logging and conservation on about 630,000 thousand acres of state forests for the next 70 years to protect 17 threatened or endangered species. Among them are Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salmon and steelhead, martens, red tree voles and torrent salamanders. The volume of wood permitted for harvest from those western state forests will drop by about 20%. On average, those forests would produce about 185 million board feet of timber each year rather than 225 million board feet currently produced.

The plan has been decades in the making, but its development was accelerated around 2018, and again in 2023, following lawsuits over species loss in Oregon’s western forests. Officials say a habitat conservation plan approved by the federal government is necessary for the state to avoid lawsuits under the federal Endangered Species Act. 

“Going ahead with this habitat conservation plan is actually our only way to guarantee we have a future for logging in our state forests that does not shut them down,” Kelly said at the meeting. 

Over the last few decades, as fewer federal acres were allowed to be cut, logging companies turned to Oregon’s state forests, Kelly said. Today, state forests make up 3% of Oregon’s forestlands, but provide 10% of the total timber that’s harvested in the state each year.

“That’s out of balance,” Kelly said. “At the end of the day, most Oregonians don’t want our state forests to be managed like a commercial tree farm.”

Leaders in western Oregon timber counties, timber company representatives and representatives of the logging industry have railed against the plan. 

Fourteen western Oregon counties – Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook and Washington – have received a portion of revenues made on state timber harvests for 80 years. Some county leaders say they are angry and worried about the impact the habitat plan could have on their budgets. 

David Reid, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, representing 600 businesses across sectors in the area’s economy, called the plan a catastrophe. 

“It’s a crime that you or anybody else has that much power over us, but you do,” he told the forestry board at the meeting. 

Former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson unleashed a fiery criticism of the board, painting a grim picture of a future under the plan, including closed schools, deteriorating roads and suffering economies. 

“Oregonians will remember you, and not favorably,” she said. 

On average, the counties have received a combined $63.9 million each year from the timber harvests during the last decade. 

Under the habitat conservation plan, counties would receive an average of $51 million each year, according to an analysis from the state forestry department released in December.

But some new logging areas will open up under the plan. Six of the 14 western timber counties stand to earn thousands of dollars more in annual revenue than years prior under the plan, but eight could lose up to several hundred thousand dollars each year. Clatsop and Washington counties appear to be staring down possible multi-million dollar losses.

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

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