COOS BAY — Despite recent victories in both Houses of Congress, the South Coast’s man in Washington says it’s unlikely the region’s timber industry can ever be fully restored to its former glory.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said that increases in automation over the last two decades has increased productivity to the point that mills no longer have a need for the large workforces of 40 years ago.
“I probably have two mills left that haven’t dramatically updated their equipment,” he said. “We’re never going back to the really high levels (of employment in the timber industry).”
DeFazio’s comments come just days after the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act — which DeFazio co-sponsored with Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby and Greg Walden, R-Hood River — passed the House on Friday.
The plan would place approximately 1.5 million acres of federal lands into a trust for managed harvest on behalf of the state’s impoverished timber counties.
The House vote followed action by the Senate advancing a one-year renewal of the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000 to continue emergency funding of public services in Oregon timber counties.
The extension was tacked onto the Senate version of the Helium Stewardship Act passed by the House in April.
The bill now heads back to the House for reconciliation.
DeFazio said he’s still waiting on Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to introduce a companion bill to the O&C Trust Act in the Senate.
Wyden’s office has said he wants a bill that will make it across the president’s desk — a concern that appears warranted following a veto threat on the House bill prior to Friday’s vote.
Last Wednesday the Office of Management and Budget issued a policy statement recommending the veto. Among the concerns, analysts thought the act would undermine protections for threatened and endangered species and put the government at risk of lawsuits.
DeFazio said he knew the bill would be controversial, but remained hopeful that a compromise could still be worked out with the Senate that would pass OMB muster.
The counties’ predicament tracks back to the late 1800s, when the U.S. government granted more than 2 million acres of land to the Oregon and California Railroad Company.
When the railroad folded, the lands were ceded back to the federal government, leaving the counties without the property tax base they’d come to depend on.
In 1937, Congress passed the O&C Lands Act, which guaranteed the counties half of all revenue from timber sales on the lands.
The arrangement held until the late 1980s, when a series of rapid changes in federal environmental policy brought the local economy to its knees.
Critics of DeFazio’s bill have argued that mandating harvests on federal lands will undermine existing environmental protections. But the congressman points to more than a million acres of old-growth protected under the plan, as well as 90,000 new acres of wilderness.
Even if a bill eventually gets through Congress and the president’s desk, DeFazio said that the underlying economic problem is that much of southwestern Oregon is seemingly locked into a timber economy without any way out.
“Coos Bay has some of the greatest potential for alternatives that never happen,” DeFazio said. “For the rural counties, I don’t think there really is an alternative.”
Reporter Thomas Moriarty can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 240, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasDMoriarty.