Oregon O&C Lands In Play, Again

Anyone remember the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000? The Act, along with follow-up legislation was supposed to wean rural Oregon Counties from long-standing dependence on timber revenues from O&C and other Federal Lands and put them on a path to “self-determination.” Guess what? It didn’t. In fact by funding the counties at highest revenue levels ever for a period of time, the Law may have increased the dependence. Admittedly, the recent global recession played a part in the drama, but the question remains as to whether the secure rural schools law really paved a path to “self-determination.” No matter. The Lands are once-again under consideration to help the counties out of a financial bind. Isn’t it time then, once again, to bring up the notion that these lands ought not to be put into play as a single-purpose program? Isn’t it time to realize that given the broad scale of this checkerboard (here’s a map, pdf), we need better resolution of a mixed ownership problem? Watershed concerns loom large, as do species viability problems. Then there are the ever-present access and esthetic problems that surround public lands ownership. And these are no doubt just the tip of an iceberg of problems. [Note: A good short history of this saga up to 2007 is found in Forest Magazine, a longer history was published in 2010 from the Congressional Research Service (pdf)

This is a problem that cries out for "all lands management," yet our political system doesn't seem ready to confront multi-scale deliberative democracy (Wikipedia link). We have tried to jump start that program for many years and always come up short. Remember Kai Lee's Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment. Lee's masterwork went to press in 1993. Nearly 20 years later we seem to have largely forgotten that the issue is still on the table. It always will be, because as John Muir noted long ago, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." So too with the O&C lands.

When I looked at the O&C lands map yesterday I thought, Why not just trade away the checkerboard federal lands for lands nearer the larger blocks, i.e. block-up ownership? That way land management would be made easier. But easier is not always better, as the massive and extensive clearcuts of recent memory in the Northwest constantly remind us. In the old days the clearcuts tended toward checkerboard, following the ownership patterns. If we were to block up the ownership what might we get, particularly on the then predominant private lands?

I sometimes ponder Gifford Pinchot's notion of needing to regulate all forest lands. In Pinchot's day the rallying cry was to prevent a "timber famine." In our day, I believe we need to regulate all lands in an attempt to stave off and/or reverse a "biodiversity famine."

Increasingly I ask myself, What might Aldo Leopold recommend? Leopold not only was a forest supervisor, but in later years also helped found the Wilderness Society, and importantly helped to guide the foundation of both wildlife management and environmental ethics. So, What might Leopold recommend?

Note: As I was updating this post, I realized that an alternative resolution to the funding side of this problem has been on the table for a long time: provide "just compensation" to counties with a preponderance of federal lands via PILT. A careful look at the recent Congressional Research Service's assessment of the situation (pdf), yield's Ross Gorte's long-standing contention that the Congress ought to find means to get overly dependent counties off the federal dole by fully funding PILT payments, and thereby rid the nation of the plague of over-cutting federal lands in the name of "revenue enhancement." Or maybe I just read Gorte's CRS piece too quickly, in which case I can either amend this post one more time, or maybe just "deep six" it.

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Updated (4:56 PM MDT): After Andy Stahl corrected me via email on an earlier version of this post as to what is/has been in play w/r/t Oregon Counties and Oregon School Districts:

The [1937 ] O&C Act gives the counties three times the stake in BLM logging as compared to national forests — 75% of sale receipts vs. 25%. Further, the counties don’t share any O&C revenue with schools. The schools get only a portion of national forest logging receipts. The school’s share is set by state law at 40% in Oregon with 60% going to county road funds. Schools receive zero BLM O&C monies.

So I changed my mistaken wording that tied rural schools to O&C timber receipts, and reworked other parts of this post accordingly. Lemee know if I’ve still got it wrong.

7 Comments

  1. Dave- are you suggesting that “the plague of over-cutting federal lands in the name of “revenue enhancement” is currently going on? I might have seen over-cutting in my life but I haven’t seen it in the past 10 years or so…

    • The O&C Lands might be a special case. So too might be Alaska, as per your earlier conversations with David Beebe. Or maybe not. The arguments in play re: O&C lands are that Mark Rey and Co. decoupled the O&C lands from the Northwest Forest Plan, thereby setting a stage for future over-cutting, continuing a long, sorry tradition with these lands. With “Secure Rural Schools” funding at risk, there are now “stirrings” afoot that suggest that the O&C lands might soon be “in play” as a “cash cow.” If so, the over-cutting of these lands may resume.

  2. Hmm. Given all the federal laws and active litigants (if not the right-mindedness of federal employees) it’s hard for me to see this actually happening. Perhaps there is a different in what people consider “over-cutting” (like over-appealing or over-litigating).

    If anyone has specific, current projects, that they consider to be “over-cutting” for the purposes of “revenue enhancement” please send them along (terraveritas@gmail.com) and we can discuss them here.

    • There are many issues here.”Over-cutting,” as you say is in the eye of the beholder. So too with other issues. On the BLM managed O&C Lands, “at issue” in addition to cut levels and types are: revenue equity–i.e. are some rural counties in Oregon getting more than their fair share, relative to other counties with federal land?, biodiversity issues, watershed protection issues, and last but not least privatization, from here (Cascade Policy Institute, Jan 2011):

      [T]he Federal Forest Counties and Schools Stabilization Act of 2010…. This proposed legislation would privatize 1.2 million acres of the 2.4 million acres of O&C lands currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

      Who knows what else will pop up if/when the Oregon delegation tries to work something through this Congress. I daylighted this issue here so we can begin to track it.

  3. One factor that must be considered when discussing the O&C lands is that they are an integral part of the Northwest Forest Plan. By design, the NWFP is an inter-agency plan that requires both the USFS and BLM to conserve large blocks of habitat that cross federal jurisdictional boundaries, and these reserves must be well-distributed and spaced so as to allow wildlife to safely disperse across the logged matrix that separates the reserves. BM’s lands are located in areas critical to providing habitat connectivity between the Coast Range, Cascades, and Klamath Mountains. BLM cannot be extracted from the NWFP without crippling its ability to meet objectives for recovery of salmon and spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Finally, the severely cut-over condition of the intervening private timberlands within the checkerboard, makes BLM lands essential to maintaining stepping stones across this otherwise devastated landscape, but the divergent condition of forests on federal and non-federal lands means that land swaps are ecologically untenable when so many listed species are involved.

    • The NWFP has been a failure on all fronts but, Tree is correct that those lands have been set aside for whatever happens to them, “naturally”, or not. When scientists finally decide that human intervention is required on a much grander and sophisticated manner, we will have evolved towards actually saving the forests and their wildlife, rather than watching it burn.

    • Good points. I want to know whether I mis-spoke in #2 (above) in suggesting that Mark Rey and Co. “decoupled the O&C lands from the Northwest Forest Plan.” I added a cite to an article (pdf) from Michael Blumm titled “The Bush Administration’s Sweetheart Settlement Policy: A Trojan Horse Strategy for Advancing Commodity Production on Public Lands,” Environmental Law Reporter, 2004. But I’m not a legal expert, so I might have blown the allegation. Or things may have changed since the article was written. The O&C lands are discussed in section III of Blumm’s article.

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