Testimony of Commissioner Tim Freeman
Members of the Congressional Western Caucus
For the Virtual Forum Titled
“Impacts of a Weaponized Endangered Species Act: The Case of the Northern Spotted Owl”
June 16, 2021
Chairman Newhouse and Members of the Congressional Western Caucus:
My name is Tim Freeman. I am a County Commissioner from Douglas County, Oregon, and
President of the Association of O&C Counties (“AOCC”). Thank you for the opportunity to testify today regarding 30 years of failed federal policies regarding the Northern Spotted Owl.
The starting point was the ESA listing of the Spotted Owl, but on that foundation interlocking policies were built one upon the other like a fortress designed to defeat rational forest management. The story is a long and bizarre one, with a Spotted Owl ESA recovery plan under which nothing has been recovered, designations of ESA “critical habitat” that include millions of acres that are not habitat and management plans under which 80 percent of the lands receive no management. AOCC nevertheless remains hopeful that, with the help of the Congressional Western Caucus, the ship can be put right, with sustained yield management restored to the O&C lands.
AOCC was formed in 1926 to protect the interests of 18 western Oregon counties, including Douglas County, in the 2.1 million acres of federal lands known as the O&C lands. These are among the most productive timberlands in the world, capable of producing more than 1.2 billion board feet of timber every year, forever. For 50 years, the O&C lands were managed according to principles of sustained yield, to assure economic and environmental benefits in perpetuity. All of that ended with the ESA listing of the Northern Spotted Owl. Since then, 80 percent of the lands have been placed off limits in “reserves”, and actual timber harvests have declined by more than 90 percent. The O&C lands, which once paid their own management expenses and provided substantial revenue to both the counties and the U.S. Treasury, have become a financial drain on the Treasury and provide almost no revenue to counties. The sad irony is that all the human sacrifice has done nothing for the owl, which has continued its decline for reasons wholly unrelated to timber harvest.
The O&C lands have a complicated history, having been part of a railroad land grant in the 1860s and 70s. After nearly 40 years in private ownership the lands were revested back into federal ownership due to violations of the grant’s terms. With the lands taken out of private ownership and off the property tax rolls in 1916, the O&C counties sought federal policies that would provide recompense for lost local tax revenues. Congress finally arrived at a solution —a brilliant and creative solution that was supported by AOCC — in 1937. Congress passed the O&C Act of 1937, which specifically mandates that all O&C lands be managed for timber production under principles of sustained yield to produce revenue for local governments and to provide a stable source of timber supply. Under the O&C Act, counties are to be paid 50 percent of revenue from timber sales. The key was sustained yield forestry, which would assure timber, revenue and community stability forever, with associated benefits for streams, recreation and other forest values. The directive was to both use and protect the forest through the flexible precepts of sustained yield forestry.
For decades after 1937, the O&C lands provided a steady supply of timber for domestic manufacturing and lumber markets, strong and vigorous economies and well-paying jobs in rural Oregon communities, income to the federal treasury, and financial support and stability for the 18 western Oregon counties—all while supporting some of the best fish and wildlife habitat in the lower 48 for iconic species like chinook salmon, blacktail deer, and Roosevelt elk. It was literally a win-win, multiple times over. That all changed dramatically with the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl in 1990.
The potential upending of the way of life in western Oregon counties was clear at the time of the listing, to the point that the rarely-used “God squad” was convened in 1991 to consider whether to exempt the Northern Spotted Owl from Endangered Species Act protections for pending timber sales. Ironically, the Washington Post reported, in a November 20, 1991 article entitled “Spotted Owl in Hands of ‘God Squad’”, that then-Secretary of Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. was “anticipating an end to the spotted owl issue” and was quoted to state: “I look forward to the final resolution.” Thirty years later, AOCC is still looking forward to a final resolution.
At one time, the “final resolution” was supposed to be the Northwest Forest Plan, a creature of the Clinton administration, which has been an epic failure and catastrophe. The Northwest Forest Plan spawned lawsuit after lawsuit and has never come close to producing the timber volume promised to counties, rural communities, and the timber industry. Now, 30 years later, the Spotted Owl is no closer to recovery than it was at the time of listing—because Barred Owl competition, not timber harvest, is its primary threat—while the myriad of benefits of the implementation of the O&C Act have been virtually wiped out. We’ve gone from win-win to lose-lose.
The latest insult is hundreds of thousands of acres of acres of burned and dead O&C timber that is still usable but that the BLM refuses to salvage because they were once allocated to “reserves” based on Spotted Owl habitat needs. Never mind that these habitat reserves are now mostly gray ash with black lifeless trees going to rot and to provide fuel for the next round of fires. Logic plays no part in this discussion — misguided land use allocations based on elements of the ESA control, regardless of the results.
To put the harm to counties into perspective for you, in 1989, the year before the owl was listed, the O&C payments to counties totaled $109,911,000. In today’s dollars, that is equal to the purchasing power $238,506,870. The Spotted Owl was ESA listed in 1990 and, thirty years later, O&C timber receipts for counties have lately been about $25,000,000. This massive, 90 percent reduction has been a loss to county general fund budgets that over time have been decimated by forced cuts. As observed in a 2013 report from Oregon’s Governor:
“It is the discretionary general fund that counties use to fund services such as public safety, libraries and animal control in addition to making contributions to public health, assessment & taxation and many other shared services. When cuts must be made, they must come from this discretionary revenue. In four counties, O&C payments make up more than 50% of discretionary general fund revenue; and more than 20% in nine counties. These facts together demonstrate the historic reliance on timber payments to help fund local government services.”
Congress softened the fall somewhat with payments in lieu of timber receipts under the Secure Rural Schools legislation known as SRS. It has been an almost constant struggle to keep that legislation alive, with seven different SRS reauthorizations over the last 20 years, each of which has reduced payments to counties. The last renewal of SRS ended in 2020 with O&C payments approximately equal to the currently depressed O&C timber receipts. SRS has not been renewed for 2021 or beyond.
Meanwhile, the rise of lumber prices in the United States, due to demand that has severely outpaced the lumber that can be produced by manufacturers, has made international news. Although Oregon remains the largest lumber producing state in the country, many dozens of sawmills were forced to close and thousands of well-paying jobs were lost as a direct result of the listing of the Spotted Owl. Some counties, once wood products manufacturing centers, now have no mills at all. As a country, we have lost infrastructure needed to domestically meet U.S. lumber demands at prices Americans can afford. This is directly contrary to two of the foundational purposes of the O&C Act, which were to provide a “permanent source of timber supply” and “community stability.”
The relentless, ESA-based litigation by some environmental organizations has cowed the federal management agencies, who fear and avoid the controversies manufactured by those opposed to virtually all timber harvests. The paradigm needs to shift. The BLM, which manages the O&C lands, is legally obliged to manage according to principles of sustained yield. Judge Leon of the federal District Court in the District of Columbia has ruled in favor of AOCC on that point and declared the BLM’s current management plan to be in violation of the O&C Act.
There can be a positive ending to this 30-year tale of woe. Judge Leon’s ruling has opened a door and the agencies should be encouraged to explore ways in which sustained yield can be used to both keep the promises to counties of revenue and community stability while also protecting and increasing spotted owl habitat. It is not an either-or proposition. For a deeper dive into the possibilities, AOCC invites you to explore its website and a scenario of future sustained yield management that increases owl habitat while achieving economic objectives: http://www.oandc.org/proposed-future-management/ For more details regarding restoration of sustained yield management without the artificial, unproductive and unnecessary limitations of an ESA “critical habitat” designation, please see the attached document produced by AOCC’s staff.
Thank you for your interest in the O&C lands and the ESA-caused plight of the counties in western Oregon.