Sunday, December 8, 2013

Wild and Scenic Chetco River protection update | Fall 2013

Fishing on the Chetco
Now that the Chinook have begun to return to the Chetco, it’s a good time to to see where we’re at with the Chetco River Protection Act. The legislation will permanently protect our Wild and Scenic River from the threat of instream mining.

In July, Secretary of Interior Jewell signed a  mineral withdrawal, protecting the Chetco  from mining for 5 years. This will give Congress time to pass the legislation.

In the meantime, on the Congressional front, the Chetco River Protection Act has become entangled in the controversy over increasing logging on federal lands in Western Oregon.

Last spring, the bill was tucked into the House bill introduced by Representatives DeFazio, Schrader and Walden, which would divide the O&C lands in two and create a timber trust to increase logging on one half —while the other half would gain increased protection.

On the Senate side, the bill was appropriately tucked inside the Oregon Treasures Act last summer and has most recently been attached to Senator Wyden’s proposed O&C lands legislation.

The Senator announced the packaging of the Chetco bill at a town hall meeting in Brookings in late November.

He explained his deep commitment to taking a bipartisan approach to all legislation given the polarized politics and said that he aimed to forge a compromise with his forest bill by dividing the O&C lands into two parts –one for timber harvest and one for conservation emphasis. He then piled up conservation positives on one side of the ledger and then a substantial increase in logging of O&C lands plus streamlined reviews on the other. By relying on the help of scientists, he says he was able to find a middle path.

Chetco protection is now part of the “conservation” side of the ledger. Other positives include protections for other “Oregon Treasures,” including new Rogue River wilderness, Devils Staircase Wilderness, Wild and Scenic designation for the Molalla River, new protections for the John Day River. In addition, there is no logging of old growth trees over 120 years in age, and there is special protection for the upper Illinois Valley where there are a lot of private lands interspersed with O&C lands. According to Senator Wyden, his bill creates 87,000 acres of wilderness, 165 miles of wild and scenic rivers, and will permanently conserve nearly a million acres of O&C lands.

On the logging side of the ledger, a target of 350 million board feet will be coming from timber emphasis lands to increase and stabilize revenues to rural counties. And streamlined reviews mean that the BLM will prepare only two environmental impact statements for all timber sales --one for eastside forests and one for westside forests. There will be no more individual scrutiny of sales.

The O&C deal with has been heavily criticized by most environmental groups, which say it significantly increases clearcuts and reduces opportunity for environmental review, which is an important way that some of the most egregious impacts of timber harvest are reduced..

Other conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited, have taken a measured response –acknowledging the benefits of increased protections for certain rivers and yet carefully expressing concerns over reduced riparian protections from the Northwest Forest Plan.

On the other side, the Association of O&C Counties has criticized the bill saying it won’t provide nearly enough timber and enough revenue to rural counties.

Of course, the devil will be in the details. For example, Senator Wyden says there will be no clearcuts because his plan requires that 30 percent of trees  be left standing. However, environmentalists counter that although this approach is called “ecological logging” and is a small improvement, it basically ordains clearcutting while leaving small patches of trees on a million acres of land in western Oregon.

How the details will all work has yet to play out. Senator Wyden’s bill must first be formally introduced and passed in the Senate. Then it will go to conference with the House Natural Resources Committee, where another even more controversial forestry bill sits containing Chetco protection legislation These two pieces of proposed legislation will need to be reconciled to pass both House and Senate before reaching President Obama’s desk. Already the president indicated he would veto the House version of the bill.

Ann Vileisis of Kalmiopsis Audubon Society attended the Brookings town hall to thank the Senator for his leadership in helping to protect the Wild and Scenic Chetco from the threat of instream mining as did Marius Washbauer of the Chetco River Watershed Council.

It’s unfortunate that the fate of our beautiful little river is now wrapped up into the politics of our polarized political times.

Of course, protecting the National Wild and Scenic Chetco from instream mining should be a no brainer –pure and simple. It just makes common sense. It shouldn’t really be a token used to offset more logging. If our temporary administrative withdrawal expires before Congress passes permanent protection and we get another serious mining threat on the Chetco, it would cost the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars to manage –with environmental statements, monitoring and enforcement in remote canyons, and litigation ---not to mention the predictable damage to fisheries and other outstandingly remarkable values of the river.

One way or another, let’s hope that Congress can see to pass permanent protection for the Wild and Scenic Chetco before the temporary withdrawal runs out in 2018.