Wyden to tackle forestry issues early in 113th Congress

Posted: Dec 20, 2012

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said forestry issues will be among his top priorities when he becomes chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee next Congress, including bills to accelerate restoration logging in Oregon and other parts of the West.

Wyden, who once described the Beaver State as the "Saudi Arabia of biomass," is seen as more supportive of "place-based" forestry bills than current committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), who is retiring at the end of this month after 30 years in the Senate.

Wyden said he will push hard for bills such as his S. 220, which would promote active management on 8.3 million acres of forests east of the Cascades, and that he would consider similar bills such as a proposal by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) to accelerate forest restoration and designate wilderness in western Montana.

Wyden said he discussed forestry issues with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's ranking member, during a recent trip to Alaska, which, like Oregon, saw timber harvests plummet over the past decades as a result of protections for old-growth trees and the species they support.

"I think there are a lot of opportunities to find common ground on forestry," Wyden said in a brief interview last week. "I think there is a chance to possibly build a coalition between these hard-hit rural communities that are worried about becoming ghost towns and get them off what I really call their own version of a fiscal cliff."

As chairman, Wyden will have a full slate of forestry issues to tackle, including the expiration of the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides financial aid for timber-dependent counties, a continuing bark-beetle epidemic and increasingly severe wildfires as a result of dry, overstocked forests.

Mary Wagner, associate chief of the Forest Service, last summer said 65 million acres of forests are at high or very high risk of wildfires. More than 40 million acres is now infected by mountain pine beetles, which, while the science is mixed, many argue makes them more susceptible to fire.

"Millions of acres of old growth are in danger of dying from disease, insects or fire while the infrastructure for our industry jobs in rural communities faces an uncertain future," Wyden said at a committee hearing in May 2011.

One of Wyden's biggest tasks will be trying to find a sustainable solution on western Oregon's O&C lands that will increase timber jobs and revenues to counties while still protecting old-growth habitats and the species that depend on them.

The committee's specific agenda should come into focus next month after new forestry staffers come on board.

Committee Democrats will welcome Michele Miranda, who has long worked as an aide in Wyden's personal office and will take on many of the duties of Scott Miller, who left several months ago to teach at the University of Colorado Law School.

On the Republican side, Lucy Murfitt, who has served as legislative counsel for Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) since 2004, will replace Frank Gladics, who retired from the committee after serving as a Republican forestry and public lands aide since 2001 (E&E Daily, Dec. 7).

"You have a complete changeover in staff," said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition in Washington, D.C. "It doesn't make the issues easier, but maybe we'll get some new ideas."

Imbergamo said Wyden and Murkowski have a "great working relationship" and that he is hopeful they will reach agreements on a forestry reform bill for the whole country.

Place-based forestry

Keith Chu, a spokesman for Wyden, said the senator is encouraged that more forestry projects are taking place in eastern Oregon as a result of agreements between timber companies, conservation groups and other stakeholders.

Because of that progress, Wyden plans to update S. 220, reintroduce it and pass it out of the committee next year, Chu said.

The bill sets minimum treatment levels to accelerate the pace of thinning and brush-clearing to reduce fire danger and supply wood products to mills in eastern Oregon. While it drew the support of an unlikely alliance of timber companies and environmentalists, it failed to receive a committee markup this Congress.

The Forest Service said it supports numerous concepts in the bill but was opposed to Congress' prescribing management on specific areas of the national forest system.

Tester's S. 268, which similarly would require the Forest Service to treat 100,000 acres in western Montana over the next 15 years, also did not receive a markup, even though the Obama administration said its goals were achievable.

Observers say Wyden will be more willing than Bingaman to push such bills, in part because his state has a far bigger forest products industry than New Mexico.

"We believe these [bills] all point to a growing frustration with the Forest Service's ability to get ahead of the growing forest health problems, including record fire years, and meet the needs of these rural communities," said Ann Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore.

Burns said the industry hopes Wyden and Murkowski will seek "meaningful forest reform legislation" that promotes more active forest management.

"For too long, the Congress has taken a Band-Aid approach to the problem in the form of Secure Rural School payments and ever-increasing wildfire suppression spending without addressing the root cause of what has really become a national problem," she said.

But she said the pace and scale of forest management and restoration in eastern Oregon have already exceeded some of the expectations in Wyden's bill. "We will want to make sure that any legislation, whether it applies to only eastern Oregon or nationally, adds to this progress," she said.

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