By Associated Press • 

US House panel backs key Ore. timber legislation

PORTLAND — A U.S. House committee on Wednesday advanced legislation aimed at increasing timber harvests on former Oregon & California Railroad lands in Western Oregon.

The provision was included in a sweeping federal forests bill that passed the Natural Resources Committee in a voice vote Wednesday. The whole package, which calls for much higher timber harvest levels on forest lands nationally, heads to the full House with an eye toward setting up negotiations with the Senate, The Oregonian reported.

The legislation was drafted by Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader along with Republican Rep. Greg Walden, all three of whom represent Oregon districts. It would put 1.5 million of the 2.4 million acres of O&C land into a trust managed by the state for timber production without the constraints of federal environmental laws. Some of the land would be set aside as protected wilderness areas.

Western Oregon counties struggling economically with the two-decade decline in logging have eagerly sought looser restrictions on timber harvests. Environmental groups oppose the plan.

“I am hopeful that the full House will take up this common-sense plan as soon as possible so that we can begin negotiations with the Senate,” Walden said in a statement. “Now is the time to finally get this done for Oregon.”

The House plan is widely considered a nonstarter in the Senate, where majority Democrats oppose a vast expansion of logging.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working on his own legislation that would increase harvests to a smaller degree, infringing less on environmental protections.

The O&C lands are named for the Oregon & California Railroad, which got land in the 1860s to finance the railroad. After the company went bust, the government in 1916 took back a checkerboard of one-mile squares interspersed with private timberlands.

A special law enacted in 1937 governs management of the lands, an early attempt at managing federal lands for multiple uses, including clean water and recreation. They became a cash cow for the counties. Unlike the national forests, which share 25 percent of logging revenues with counties to help pay for schools and roads, the O&C lands share 75 percent, with no restrictions.

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