Oregon’s long-overdue Private Forest Accord could set stage for climate change work

Public pressure to protect drinking water helped put conservation, forestry groups on path to essential Oregon deal.

February 10, 2022 12:30 pm

Oregon courts are now trying to resolve whether the state has been managing public forests in ways to benefit 15 counties. (Oregon Department of Forestry)

It’s been a long time since Oregonians first saw the words “private forest” and “accord” in the same document – more than 50 years in fact, since Oregon adopted its first-in-the nation Forest Practices Act in 1971.

One year after that, with enactment of the federal Endangered Species Act, the terms of engagement on our forestlands quickly expanded from managing resources to protecting fish and wildlife. In the decades that followed, we saw continual discord, never-ending lawsuits and near-violent flare-ups in what came to be known as Oregon’s timber wars.

Until the official release of the new Private Forest Accord earlier this week.

News of the accord was followed by the announcement of a deal to repurpose the Elliott State Forest – an innovative proposal for a public forest of 91,000 acres. But the Elliott is understory to the larger reach of the accord, which will apply to all 10 million acres of private timber lands in Oregon.

The agreement hashed out by timber companies and environmental groups portends a new commitment to consultation in managing Oregon’s forest resources and protecting its endangered species. More negotiation and compromise, fewer ballot measure battles and lawsuits. More science and mutual fact finding, less distrust and dismissal of the facts on the ground.

All this started in 2019 when conservation organizations filed several ballot measures to protect forest watersheds. (Disclosure: I was one of several advisers to these organizations in the initial stages.) In response, the timber industry filed counter-measures of its own.

White flags were raised on both sides. Gov. Kate Brown stepped in. Talks began. Two years later, the parties delivered the accord.

How did parties who had been dueling for decades finally come to an agreement?

Public opinion was one factor, as awareness grows that we are all connected to our forests – not just for timber and timber jobs, but for wildlife habitat, recreation and drinking water.

But what catalyzed the agreement was the focus on water. Protect the source of our waters in expansive forestlands and you protect our iconic salmon and wildlife. Protect our fish and wildlife and you protect many of our most pristine water sources.

Environmental groups like the Wild Salmon Center and Oregon Wild were able to show that Oregonians have been growing increasingly concerned about protecting the sources of drinking water. And, when told that the state’s Forrest Practices Act had fallen behind neighboring states in its protections for watersheds, public support for updating a half-century old regulatory framework was overwhelming.

For the largest timber companies like Weyerhaeuser, many of which now manage their forests under stricter environmental regimes in Washington and California, Oregon’s backwardness came to be seen as a liability. They realized that our decline from the proud first adopter of private forest regulation to a laggard in protecting timbered watersheds was going to set the stage for more citizen revolts – in the courts, in the legislature and on the ballot.

These were the political dynamics that shifted a fraught culture of conflict toward negotiation and compromise.

The immediate beneficiaries of the accord will be fish and wildlife and the forested watersheds that keep them healthy. This will be accomplished by expanding no-logging setbacks along rivers and streams. To get there, all parties heeded the science and learned from years of study of the effects of warming waters on salmon and other protected species.

But there are other upstream and downstream benefits as well – for the health of forest watersheds, the safety of steep slope logging, the protection of drinking water and, by extension, a first and meaningful response to the challenges of climate change from the timber industry.

Shade forest waters and you’ll also help to save the planet. Those new stream-side protections will take a million acres of standing timber off the chopping block in western Oregon, which means more carbon stored in our forestlands.

Implementation of the accord depends on the passage of SB 1501 and a companion bill for accommodating the needs of small woodlot owners. Both were approved this week by the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, along with the bill to repurpose the Elliott State Forest.

If these bills make it through this session of the legislature, we’ll be catching up with a half century’s worth of learning about how to keep our forests and wildlife healthy.

The next test will be responding to a new century’s need to protect our planet.

Let’s hope we can bring to that effort the same commitment to science-based fact finding and negotiated policy making that delivered this long overdue accord.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.