ANOTHER VOICE: Walden: Forest use status quo must end

These are excerpts from testimony by Rep. Greg Walden before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations/ Natural Resources Committee on April 11.

This is an important and timely hearing. I’m encouraged by the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks Forests and Public Lands’ interest in identifying a long-term solution for our federal forest counties and the hardworking people who live there.

I recognize my colleagues from Oregon, Representatives Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, for working with me and many other Oregonians who agree that the status quo serves no one well.

Later today you will hear from Oregon’s Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson who also chairs the Oregon & California Counties Association (O&C Counties) and Tom Tuchmann, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber’s Forestry and Conservation Advisor. I am very pleased that the Committee called on these two individuals given their combined wealth of knowledge on the issues before us today. It’s time for real change.

Let me be clear about what our forested communities face: Since 1990 the timber harvest from federal timber lands in Oregon has dropped by more than 90 percent. In fact, 60 percent of Oregon’s forestland is owned by the federal government but contributes only 12 percent to Oregon’s total timber harvest. The mortality rates are above 19 percent on federal lands and we have endured hundreds of thousands of acres lost to wildfire, bug infestations, and disease. That’s not a healthy picture.

The economic picture in Oregon’s rural forested communities is just as bad. According to the Oregon Employment Department, of the 14 forested counties I represent, 10 currently face double digit unemployment. If this wasn’t shocking enough, consider that eight of these same counties over the last five years have had an average poverty level of 14 percent or greater. How could we let this happen to our rural forested communities?

Remember from 1980 to today, Oregon went from 405 open mills to just 106 open mills; a 74 percent decrease in capacity available to do work in the woods. We went from 45,778 mill jobs to 15,706 in that time; a 66 percent drop.

According to the Oregon Department of Education, nearly 60 percent of school children in Harney County qualify for free and reduced lunch.

What would the outcry be if suddenly Portland-Beaverton-based Intel and Nike just shut down? What would the impact be on schools, business, churches. the community? Well just ask people who live in John Day, Wallowa, and Hines — they will tell you it’s devastating.

I think we can all agree that the status quo doesn’t work, and won’t work going forward.

Our communities don’t even want the status quo. They don’t want the handout that’s made them dependent on the federal government. They want jobs. They want healthy forests. They’re tired of the catastrophic fires and the bug infestation. They’re sick of the budgeting uncertainty that comes with not knowing if Uncle Sam will pay his fair share.

I would like to now enter into the record a report prepared in December for Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and members of the Oregon legislature titled the “National Forest Health Restoration - An Economic Assessment of Forest Restoration on Oregon’s Eastside National Forests” which contains some remarkable and telling facts about the current ecological and economic conditions of forest lands and communities.

It is important to note the diverse and knowledgeable group that made up the steering committee — Association of Oregon Counties; Ochoco Lumber Company; Office of Governor John Kitzhaber; Oregon Business Council; Oregon Department of Energy; Oregon Department of Forestry; Oregon Forest Resources Institute; Oregon Solutions; Oregon State University; Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board; Sustainable Northwest; The Nature Conservancy; and the Forest Service.

As stated from the report “The purpose of this study is to provide an accurate economic impact assessment of forest health restoration on Oregon’s eastside National Forests.” The basic takeaways of the report are that reduced forest management activity in eastern, southern, and central Oregon has decreased timber supply and hurt many families.

The report clearly states that between 2006 and 2011, annual food stamp use and welfare payments in these areas tripled to nearly $300 million, and in 2010, Oregon distributed $470 million in unemployment insurance claims to 29,000 people in the study area.

The report underscored that fact that in these rural forested communities, nearly 1 in 5 people live in poverty; the highest rate in Oregon. Not only are the forests unhealthy, so are these rural forested communities. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Oregon’s county governments are crying out for change.

Momentum is building for change — from county commission chambers to the committee rooms of the state legislature to the halls of Congress. We can do this. We can put people back to work in the woods. We can create prosperous communities and healthy forests. We can provide certainty for teachers and law enforcement officers. We can better manage our forests.

This is our opportunity to make federal forest policy work for Oregon. I look forward to being a part of this effort.

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For the full text of Walden’s testimony, go to: walden.house.gov.

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