BROOKINGS, ORE– In Washington, D.C. today Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman urged Congress to pass reforms to improve the health of America’s federally-owned forests and create much-needed jobs in rural, forested communities. Freeman serves as President of the Association of O&C Counties, representing 17 western Oregon counties hosting 2.1 million acres of O&C timberlands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Freeman testified to the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee’s Federal Lands Subcommittee, which held a hearing today on the discussion draft of the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017. The legislation is intended to improve forest management activities on National Forest System lands, BLM lands and tribal lands to return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forested lands. In testimony Freeman described the situation in rural western Oregon, where communities are surrounded by federally-owned forests that have become off-limits to active forest management.
“We are critically in need of forest management reform legislation that addresses federal forest management practices to get more work done on the ground, to improve the health of our forests and to provide economic opportunity for our forest communities,” Freeman said. He added that rural western Oregon counties are most affected by the BLM’s failure to honor the federal O&C Act, which requires the agency to manage O&C lands for sustained-yield timber production. He placed the blame squarely on conflicting and counterproductive federal laws and regulations that stymie active forest management.
“Beginning in the 1990s and becoming progressively worse since, federal policies have become so tangled and the regulatory agencies have usurped so much of the management authority that the BLM is no longer able to manage the O&C Lands as it should,” Freeman said. “It appears the BLM is no longer willing to even try. Fearful of litigation and criticism, the BLM has taken the path of least resistance.”
“The counties and the public had limited opportunity to participate in the up front decisions that severely limited the management strategies considered under [the National Environmental Policy Act] in the recent BLM planning process,” Freeman said. “These federal government actions fail to address the human species and the well-being of rural communities, which is directly tied to the management of the O&C forests.”
The federal government owns more than half of the land base in some O&C counties, but the federal government pays no property taxes. Because the counties share half of timber-generated revenues on O&C Lands, Freeman said counties will be forced to make additional significant cuts to public services unless action is taken to reform federal forest policies.
“In the rural O&C Counties commissioners have been faced with closure of libraries, jails, and elimination of sheriff patrols,” Freeman said. “Hundreds of employees have been laid off in recent years, services have been curtailed, and whole departments shuttered. Unfortunately, there is more bad news to come.”
Freeman said congressional reforms would give federal agencies the ability to actively manage forests for multiple uses and benefits, especially for western Oregon O&C lands.
“Through sustained yield management, the O&C Lands can contribute to the economy of local communities and county governments and simultaneously provide a wide range of forest values such as recreation, wildlife habitats, clean water, wood products, and carbon storage,” Freeman said. “The O&C Lands can once again be a performing asset that produces revenue to help balance the Federal budget. The benefits of proper management accrue both locally and nationally.”