JOHN DAY - The Grant County Public Forest Commission is taking a stand against the eastside forest act unveiled last month by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and a collection of industry and environmental groups.

In a Jan. 20 letter to Wyden, the Commission contended that the act would exacerbate the problems associated with forest management in Eastern Oregon, handing a victory to environmental interests.

"The Commission finds that the enormity of the problems associated with this Act are so overwhelming that we cannot support it," said the letter, signed by Larry Blasing, Mike Smith, Walt Gentis, Tad Houpt, King Williams and Roger McKinley.

The Oregon Eastside Forests Restoration, Old Growth Protection and Jobs Act of 2009 has been hailed by some observers as a step toward ending the timber wars in Eastern Oregon.

Tom Towslee, state communications director for Wyden, noted last week that the bill is supported by the American Forest Resources Council, the state's largest timber industry organization and a majority of the mills operating in the eastside forests.

"While the bill doesn't provide exactly what either the industry or environmentalists may ideally prefer, it would guarantee a large increase in timber supply to eastside mills for decades to come," Towslee said.

Wyden announced the legislation Dec. 23 in Washington, D.C., amid a show of support that included Tom Partin, AFRC president; John Shelk of Ochoco Lumber and Tom Insco of Boise Cascade.

Conservationists backing the effort included Tim Lillebo of Oregon Wild, Bob Bendick of The Nature Conservancy and Mary Scurlock of the Pacific Rivers Council.

Andy Kerr, longtime environmental activist and consultant, said that with the changes forged by the legislation, "confrontation will give way to collaboration."

The bill calls for the Forest Service to identify areas for large-scale restoration and fuels treatment over a three-year period. Timber sales would not be subject to appeals during the assessment stage.

The bill was intended to provide protection for old growth while assuring logs to supply local mills.

However, the Commission contends that the legislation would dramatically add to the process required to get a project off the ground, and that it puts economic considerations "secondary to anything else, in stark contrast to the objectives of forest management spelled out in the Forest Service Manual."

The commission also took issue with the act's attempt to help the local economy, noting that it defines "local" as a 100-mile radius around a national forest. For the Malheur National Forest, that would stretch to Washington state, Idaho and the Cascades.

"The Commission believes this will kill small resource-dependent communities" in Grant and Harney counties.

The Commission also criticized definitions of old growth, forest health, restoration economies and other factors as ambiguous. Members worry that the legislation would result in increased regulation, with no assurance of funding for forest work.

The act would create an advisory panel, and that also drew criticism.

"The combination of mandates including the advisory panel, the collaborative groups and the coorrdination with the Secretary will absolutely guarantee paralysis," the letter said.

One Commission member, Williams, noted former U.S. Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas' comments about the act in a recent opinion piece in The Oregonian. Thomas called for a comprehensive approach to forest management, which he termed "dysfunctional." He said that while he doesn't question the motivations or integrity of those who back the Wyden act, he sees their approach to the problems as flawed and "less than fully informed."

Thomas cited the trade-offs required for the act.

"Those who wanted environmental protection got their wishes - upfront," he wrote. "Those who wanted a 'guaranteed' supply of raw material or a certain number of acres to be 'treated' are, in gambler's terminology, 'betting on the come.'"

However, backers of the Wyden plan have cited a critical need to collaborate to end the stalemate over the eastside forests.

"We can either continue to operate these forests as Clinton and Bush did, and lose all of our mills, or come to some agreement with one another and move forward to increase timber employment in rural counties," Towslee said. "AFRC, the environmentalists, and the senator chose to move forward for Oregon."

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