Public lands gridlock demands action soon

A minority of Western leaders, including the Yamhill County commissioners, want to see federal lands in the region returned to the states.

So far, only Utah has formally requested title to such lands. That demand has been totally ignored by the federal government, signaling similar resolutions will meet the same fate, at least in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the very real battle rages on to find permanent solutions to the revenue crisis gripping several of Oregon’s 18 O&C counties.

In the late 1800s, the federal government granted millions of acres of timber land to the Oregon & California Railroad Company, which aimed to sell it off piecemeal to homesteaders to help fund railroad construction.

When the company failed to meet terms, the government reclaimed the land, which supported vast stands of high-value Douglas fir. The O&C Act of 1937 set aside 2.4 million acres for the economic benefit of the 18 counties affected in Oregon.

Under the act, the land was to be logged under the sustained yield principle, capping the annual harvest at the annual rate of re-growth. And that was sufficient to produce a veritable gusher of revenue in heavily timbered Southern Oregon counties like Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson and Josephine.

But the harvest plummeted after the listing of the spotted owl as a threatened species in 1990. And the more dependent of the bunch have struggled mightily ever since.

The O&C claim in Yamhill County is small, so dependency on public land logging was, thankfully, never established. Not so with neighboring Polk, which also is suffering.

The Secure Rural Schools Act, passed in 2000, provided subsidies to rural counties across the nation, including the ailing O&C counties. But it expired in 2006, and after a series of one-year reauthorizations at reduced levels, it lapsed entirely last year. 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has been trying since 2008 to enact new O&C legislation. His bill would replace the sustained yield principle with “accelerated restoration,” a scientific approach developed by professors Norm Johnson of Oregon State and Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington. Johnson is scheduled to discuss his plan at the McMinnville City Club next month.

Environmental groups dislike the bill because it allows logging of some old-growth tracts. The Association of O&C Counties dislikes the bill because it focuses on habitat restoration rather than straightforward economics.

The O&C counties prefer a bill drafted by Oregon’s House delegation, but the administration has threatened to veto it. That being the case, some advocates are embracing Wyden’s bill as a starting point. In the meantime, some environmental groups are using litigation to keep the lands in virtual gridlock.

Yamhill County’s stake is small, but that doesn’t mean it should be sitting on the sidelines or stubbornly grandstanding for unreachable, unnecessary goals. The county needs to foster support where it can, by forging alliances with groups and leaders who understand the situation well and are committed to workable solutions.

We need some progress soon. The health of local forests and local economies are depending on it.