As officials at state and federal agencies attempt to wrap up the landmark Western Oregon State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan, stakeholders are issuing new demands and asking for final tweaks that could delay the already overdue plan into 2025.
Conservationists say at stake are the fate of 17 threatened species and thousands of acres that make up some of Oregon’s last old-growth forests.
For timber companies and two counties that rely disproportionately on timber revenues to fund public services, the stakes are financial losses that could cost logging and milling jobs, as well money for police and schools.
For the state, the risk of lawsuits under the federal Endangered Species Act remains as long as the plan is not finalized by the Oregon Board of Forestry and approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The latest demands for changes to the plan come from 10 conservation groups that say it still does not go far enough.
On Tuesday, the groups – including the Center for Biological Diversity, Oregon Wild, The Conservation Angler, Native Fish Society and the Oregon Chapter of Sierra Club – wrote to Gov. Tina Kotek, asking her to direct the Oregon Department of Forestry to add to the conservation plan 11,000 additional acres of tree stands that are more than 80-years-old in the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests, and 18,000 acres of the Cook Creek Watershed in the Tillamook State Forest.
“This is our only chance to protect old growth forests on public lands of the North Coast,” said Margaret Townsend, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email to the Capital Chronicle.
“We have been asking for these protections for some time, and this is not a major ask in the scheme of this Habitat Conservation Plan,” she said.
Oregon’s attempt to balance logging in 630,000 acres of Western state forests with protections for threatened animal species has taken decades to negotiate and is more than two years behind. It was supposed to be finished in the fall of 2022.
The timing of the letter to Kotek comes after months of unsuccessfully trying to get the additional acreage included in the plan, and a recent move by the Oregon Department of Forestry to fix a logging road in the Cook Creek Watershed that was washed out in 2015.
The agency was slated to get $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency this summer to fix the road, but FEMA officials revoked the funding following concerns raised by the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands that Oregon’s forestry department was not considering impacts to coastal coho salmon and marbled murrelets by allowing the road to be rebuilt. Agency officials said they were committed to building the road with or without the FEMA funding.
Joy Krawczyk, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Forestry, acknowledged that the agency had discussed the inclusion of the Cook Creek Watershed and additional old-growth acres with conservation groups before. She said ultimately they were not included because they are not considered critical to the 17 threatened species protected under the plan.
Krawczyk described getting the plan over the finish line as “challenging,” and said that any changes to it at this point would delay completion, which can happen no sooner than late 2024 at this point.
Sara Duncan, a spokesperson for the Oregon Forest Industries Council, characterized the letter to the governor this late in negotiations as a “publicity stunt.”
“Eleventh hour political appeals for more by activist organizations who have already been heavily engaged in the multi-year process should be seen as what they are: publicity stunts and nothing more,” Duncan said in an email.
The Western Oregon State Forests Habitat Conservation Plan would govern the bulk of Oregon’s coast range forests managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Currently the state forester can change conservation areas in state forests without agency and public input.
Under the new plan, the state forester would no longer be in charge of such decisions in conservation areas, and some previously logged areas in the state’s western forests would be off limits to logging for at least 70 years.
If approved, the conservation plan would protect the state from lawsuits over those 17 species that are protected, or expected soon to be protected, under the Endangered Species Act. Among them are Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salmon and steelhead, martens, red tree voles and torrent salamanders.
Timber companies and industry groups, along with county commissioners in Tillamook and Clatsop Counties, have been outspoken about their concerns over financial losses.
Estimates of how much timber and revenue could be lost are being revised now by the state forestry department. County leaders have not yet published or shared data showing how much of their total annual budgets, year-over-year, are supported by timber revenues. The counties get about 64% of revenue from timber harvests on state forests.
The development of the habitat conservation plan for Oregon’s Western state forests was accelerated following a settlement this spring between the Oregon Department of Forestry and several conservation groups over a lawsuit alleging logging was further threatening endangered coastal coho salmon. Part of that settlement agreement included the forestry department’s assurance that the Western Oregon State Forest Habitat Conservation Plan would be passed.
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