U.S. senator address challenges selling timber and rising oil-by-rail concerns

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., fielded questions and comments at a Saturday, Jan. 25, town hall meeting on a variety of subjects, ranging from increased traffic of oil trains through the county to criticism of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., fielded questions from Columbia County residents Saturday, Jan. 25, in the council chambers at Scappoose City Hall.

While community members asked the senator questions on a variety of subjects, the conversation Saturday night was mostly centered around timber and trains.

Wyden introduced a bill in November to open virtually all of the 10,960 acres of federal forestlands in Columbia County to logging. Wyden’s Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013 would roughly double the annual timber yield from western Oregon’s O&C lands.

The bill has been met with mixed reviews from both environmental groups and timber organizations.

“The Oregon congressional delegation is really of like mind,” Wyden said. “We’ve got to get the harvest up and we’ve got to protect our treasures and we’ve got to protect our counties. We’ve got millions and millions of overstocked stands and we’ve got to go in there and thin that out and get them to the mills.”

Wyden stressed that the forestry methods outlined in his bill would nearly double current harvesting levels while being carried out in a sustainable fasion.

“You don’t go in there and just mow down everything in sight,” Wyden said.

One audience member asked how Wyden’s bill would stack up against the Northwest Forest Plan, a federal policy adopted in 1994 to protect critical habitats for the northern spotted owl.

“In many particulars, we have more protection than the Northwest Forest Plan,” Wyden said. “For example, we have in our bill the first legislative protection of old growth. That’s why it’s picked up some very positive reviews. It’s had good reviews from a number of environmental groups like [the Pacific Rivers Council], we’ve had significant support from the timber industry. I like our scientists. They’re as good as any around.”

While Wyden’s O&C timber bill has received some positive reviews, environmental groups such as Oregon Wild argue the bill “dismantles the Northwest Forest Protection Plan.” The group argues, “the new legislation will eliminate the old-growth reserve system of the Northwest Forest Plan, dramatically weaken Endangered Species Act rules for logging, and limit Americans’ ability to have a say in how their lands are managed.”

The Association of O&C Counties have also expressed disappointment over the bill, arguing it doesn’t go far enough to rake in potential timber dollars. The association stated last month that it prefers a rival proposal offered by three Oregon congressmen.

Wyden’s bill would bring in an estimated $18 million per year for county services compared to the House bill, which would permit more logging and bring in $100 million per year, according to the association.

Asked how the House bill stacks up against Wyden’s timber bill, Wyden said, “The difference is they have chosen to put the federal forest lands in the 18 O&C counties into private trusts that would be outside the federal environmental laws.” President Obama had threatened to veto the bill for that reason, he said.

Wyden told the Spotlight after the town hall meeting he is open to talking with the Oregon representatives to make an arrangement between the two bills, but argued his bill has already been validated in terms of harvest levels.

“This is the only bill the government has validated in terms of the harvest level, and the harvest level is on average double the average for the next 20 years compared to the last 10 years,” he said.

Steve Massey, a Rainier city councilor, asked Wyden about the potential to export timber harvested on city land for a better price.

“My small city of Rainier has a watershed, and all public lands are prohibited from selling logs that are going to be shipped overseas,” he said “We have about 1,800 acres and we manage them on a sustainable basis and log about 25 acres a year, and we get about 30 or 40 percent less than the private landowners for our logs because they can’t be shipped overseas.”

Wyden responded, saying he would “get to work” on the issue, but added he wasn’t aware of such a rule for city forest lands.

“Let me under-promise and see if we can deliver something,” he said. “But the restrictions generally have been federal and state. I’ve not heard about a watershed that is completely city and what the restrictions are.”

Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge said Scappoose, too, is currently unable to sell municipal timber overseas for a higher price.

“I’m on the [United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources] — and now chair it — that has jurisdiction over this. This is our job. You taught us something, and we’ll go to work,” Wyden said.

Scappoose Planning Commissioner Bill Blank spoke about his concerns surrounding trains hauling oil through the county. “I don’t have any problem with trains,” Blank said. “I just don’t want things to go down the track that might blow up and kill me with poison.”

Wyden said he’s been working to gather information about the changing production capacity of oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota that move through Columbia County on the Portland and Western Railroad, adding that he wants more information on the products moving through the county and how current rails might handle the traffic.

“We’re going to bird-dog this until we get the changes that ensure that the safety rules and disclosure rules keep up with the times,” Wyden said. “For example, yesterday we were told in one community they thought the rail beds made sense for the days when they were moving a small amount of lumber through the town. Now, all the sudden, we’re moving this oil through town that is significantly more dangerous.”

Darrel Whipple of Rainier also raised concerns over trains hauling Bakken oil, asking Wyden how long it might take to form a legislative solution to prevent a potential disaster involving the trains.

“My take is, some of it can be done and needs to be done quite quickly, like informing the chief and others about what we’re going through and the volatility levels and toxicity, some of the information I’ve got to believe they’ve got and they just have to be willing to make those disclosures,” Wyden said.

Wyden said infrastructure improvements, such as better rails and rail cars, could take longer, potentially up to 10 years. He added he would work to hasten that process.

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