Not much "near term"                 
hope for better days...
Photo by JOHN TOWNER / Unsplash

Not much "near term" hope for better days...

Editor’s note:
Doug Robertson is the Director of the Association of O&C Counties, an organization that represents the interests of 18 western Oregon counties that hold 2.1 million acres of revested timberland once owned by the Oregon and California Railroad and now managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management.

AOCC was formed in 1925, 12 years before Congress ratified the 1937 O&C Act detailing the manner in which the lands were to be managed and harvest revenue was to be divided between the federal government and the 18 counties.

Robertson reports to a Board of Directors composed of designated county commissioners from each O&C county. The current president is Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman.

Robertson was a Douglas County Commissioner for 33 years and, at the time of his retirement, was the longest serving commissioner in Oregon. He is a former Vice President of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition and a former member of the National Forest Counties Payments Committee.

In this interview, he answers a series of wide ranging questions concerning federal and state forest policies in Oregon and, more specifically, AOCC’s ongoing effort the force the Bureau of Land Management to obey provisions of the O&C Act that have been upheld twice by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Evergreen: Doug, you are now the Director of the O&C Counties Association. How does this job differ from being a Douglas County Commissioner?

Robertson: The most significant difference is that county commissioners in Douglas County are responsible for Policy and Administration. That covers a wide range of issues dealing with a diverse constituency on all levels of government.

As the Director of the Association of O&C Counties [AOCC] I have a single focus and that is the proper administration of the O&C Act, which includes all of the BLM’s management decisions, all of the litigation associated with those decisions and keeping the membership current on these issues and how they may impact their county.

Evergreen: By my count, you and I have been up to our eyeballs in the old timber wars since 1985. What’s changed?

Robertson: Basically very little in terms of the original conflicting positions held by John Muir and Gifford Pinchot regarding the use or nonuse of the resources in our National Forest System. We have new voices and new science and social media now but the basic preservation approach vs the multiple use approach still dominates the conversation.

The one thing that has broadened the discussion and certainly increased the awareness and concern of the public is the unprecedented number, size and severity of the fires in the last 15 years, which is positive in the sense that the public is beginning to ask questions about the management policies governing our federal forest lands.

Evergreen: About 90 percent of the old federal timber sale program vanished when the Northwest Forest Plan was implement after the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species in 1990. I think the industry believed it would hang on to most of what it lost. Do you agree?

Robertson: I’m not sure. I think many of them saw what was coming and began to increase their private timber land holdings and reduce their harvest rotation age to adjust to the changing policies regarding federal forest management. Roseburg Forest Products big acquisitions in the Southeast are an example of that.

Evergreen: Do you see any hope for resolution of any of the legal or political issues that have taken federal timber off the table?

Robertson: Not in the near term. I do, however, believe that mismanagement of our federal timber lands will eventually create sufficient pressure for the public to demand changes in management policy. The one thing elected officials respond to is public pressure. The public, regardless of politics or party affiliation, is tired of months of smoke every year and seeing their national forest system be incrementally destroyed by fire, insect infestation and disease.

Evergreen: The anti-forestry mob seems to believe it’s won the federal timber war. It’s now tightening the screws on private and state timber. Do you agree or am I being too pessimistic?

Robertson: I agree. Oregon’s Habitat Conservation Plan, the legislated Private Forest Accords and changes to the Oregon Forest Practices Act are clearly aimed at private forest land.

Evergreen: All of the national polling and focus group work done in the runup to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act told us the four forest values most treasured by ordinary Americans are clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity. It seems to me that these values are where our pro-forestry focus should be. Do you agree?

Robertson: I agree. And we should all take advantage of those values which are rapidly diminishing as a result of the current mismanagement and the impenetrable bureaucracy that has paralyzed the system and made meaningful and necessary change all but impossible.

Evergreen: Clearcutting still invites criticism from the general public. Explaining how Douglas-fir grows doesn’t seem to help, but explaining how adaptive forest management can be a boon to dozens of plant and animal species might. Apart from Evergreen’s effort to promote Chad Oliver’s work, which has been around for more than 30 years, I don’t see much discussion about altering forestry prescriptions. Do you?

Robertson: No, I think you’re right. Regeneration harvest, which requires a certain retention percentage, has many benefits but is used very sparingly.

Evergreen: I fear most lumber manufacturers in the West have given up on the long-held hope that some semblance of the old federal timber sale program could be restored. What are you hearing here in Oregon – still the nation’s No. 1 softwood lumber producer?

Robertson: The lumber, logging and manufacturing industries in Oregon are alive and continuing to play a major role in Oregon’s economy, but the challenges they face are significant.

Evergreen: The old “get out the cut” mantra seems to have died out. Do you still hear it anywhere in your O&C travels?

Robertson: Not in that form, but certainly as required in the O&C Act which mandates the minimum harvest level until the sustained yield level is determined.

Evergreen: It’s our impression that Portland Audubon is still leading the anti-forestry mob and its serial litigators here in Oregon. Do I have this about right?

Robertson: Yes, along with Oregon Wild, Umpqua Watersheds, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and others.

Evergreen: My sense is that it’s time to double down on the forest values we are losing in horrific wildfires that could be minimized by implementing adaptive forest management prescriptions. What do you think?

Robertson: Yes, absolutely. The public is losing the very amenities and benefits they value most. To reverse that trend there must be a dramatic change in the management of our federal forestlands.

Evergreen: Doug, you referenced the 1937 O&C Act a moment ago. The Act said in very plain English that the 18 O&C Counties and their taxing districts in western Oregon were to share 75 percent of the  timber harvest receipts from O&C forests within each county, based on a per acre formula. The Ninth Circuit Court has twice affirmed the Act, yet the BLM refuses to follow the Act’s provisions. Why?

Robertson: The BLM’s 2016 Resource Management Plan was a clear violation of the O&C Act and, as you point out, it simply ignored the 9th Circuit Court rulings upholding the principles and requirements of the Act.

As to the “why” part of your question, over the last several decades environmental organizations have used litigation and social media to move the public and political leaders more in the direction of increased rules and restrictions. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior are simply keying on this trend at the expense of forest ecosystem health and science-based management.

Evergreen: Do the O&C counties plan to go back to the Ninth or perhaps the Supreme Court?

Robertson: In 2016 the O&C counties committed to take this case to the Supreme Court if necessary. Last November, we filed our petition for Certiorari before the Supreme Court. Although the Court accepts a small percentage of new cases filed, because of the split in the Circuit Courts, and our concern regarding overreach with executive orders and the questionable application of the Antiquities Act. We hope to get some feedback by Spring.

Evergreen: Can you cite anything specific concerning bureaucratic overreach by the BLM that has you knocking on the Supreme Court’s door?

Robertson: Among other things, the 2016 Resource Management Plan for O&C lands created “Reserve” areas on more than 80 percent of the land base, dramatically reducing the amount of timber than could be harvested under our Sustained Yield mandate.

Evergreen: So you lawyered up?

Robertson: We filed a lawsuit in the District of Columbia Federal District Court and we separately challenged the Obama Administration for including 40,000 acres of O&C land in the expansion of the Cascade/Siskiyou National Monument.

Evergreen: Including the O&C lands in the Monument would prohibit management under the 1937 O&C Act. Correct?

Robertson: That’s correct – and in 2019 Judge Richard Leon ruled in favor of the O&C Counties in both cases. But in 2021, on the last day an appeal could be filed, the federal government took its case to a three-judge panel in the DC Appellate Court. They overturned Judge Leon’s ruling. Our petition for Certiorari addresses what we believe are mistakes the three-judge panel made.

Evergreen: It’s our recollection that many in Congress thought the counties were double-dipping – pocketing National Forest harvest receipts and O&C receipts. To appease them, the O&C Counties established a “plowback” fund to cover replanting costs. Do we have this about right?

Robertson: You do but there’s more to the story. The Act required the O&C Counties to repay the federal government for the money appropriated to pay the Southern Pacific Railroad for the 2.8 million acres of unsold O&C land the government took back in 1916.

The O&C Counties were also required to repay $7,000,000 the government appropriated under the 1926 Stanfield Act. This money offset property tax revenue the counties lost.

The Counties made their final payment in 1952. By then, we realized the importance and value of these lands to the economies of all 18 counties, so we voluntarily returned 25 percent of our harvest receipts to the BLM to insure that the lands received the best possible management. The final payment by the Counties was made in 1952.

By then the 18 counties realized the importance of these forests to their economic stability, so beginning in the early 1950s the Counties began voluntarily contributing 25% of their timber receipts directly to the BLM to insure the forests got the best management possible, including  prompt and successful reforestation, early fire suppression, immediate post fire removal of dead and dying timber, and continual maintenance of pertinent road and bridge systems.

Evergreen: And this became the fabled “Plowback Fund”?

Robertson: It did indeed. But the fund as we knew it was terminated in 1982. Now, instead of the 25 percent going to the Counties, as required by the O&C Act, it goes directly to the federal treasury.

Evergreen: Wow! So much for good faith volunteerism. How much money is in the fund today?

Robertson: Combining Plowback dollars with other payments to the federal government, about two billion dollars in today’s money.

Evergreen: Common decency suggests to us that the O&C Counties are owed two billion dollars.

Robertson: Yes, but let’s not forget that the Counties and communities benefited from their contribution to the Plowback fund during the years when the BLM was honoring its part of the agreement. The fund paid for many worthwhile projects: county courthouse remodels, water impoundments, access roads to recreation areas, including Mt. Ashland Ski Resort, county parks, BLM campgrounds, hiking trails and boat ramps

Evergreen: And now the BLM sends the money to the federal treasury and the counties get nothing. Didn’t we used to call this stealing?

Robertson: I can assure you the Association of O&C Counties is engaged in a very active discussion with the federal government about  this money.

Evergreen: Turning to what may be a more hopeful discussion, what does the future hold for adaptive management of O&C forests?

Robertson: The BLM has started the planning process for a new Resource Management Plan. The original definition of Adaptive Management in the Northwest Forest Plan for nine Adaptive Management Areas in Oregon.

These were to be “think outside the box” areas where the agency would get creative and not be afraid to try some unconventional silvicultural techniques. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see that kind of thinking in the new management plan.

Evergreen: Let’s switch gears for a moment. The Oregon Land Board is attempting to hijack the forest management program on the Elliott State Forest by turning it into a no-harvest research forest– essentially stealing lunch money from kids who live in rural school districts in western Oregon.

It appears that the Land Board wants to do the same with the rest of the state-owned forests, despite an agreement with the federal government at the time Oregon achieved statehood in 1859. How are the O&C Counties dealing with this additional threat to harvesting revenues essential to their members and member taxing districts?

Robertson: The State of Oregon and the Land Boad have no jurisdiction over the O&C lands. But, as you imply, the Private Forest Accord, the State Habitat Conservation Plan, and the changes in the Oregon Forest Practices Act will have a negative impact on the amount of timber available in the future. This is a matter of great concern to local governments in all 18 O&C counties.

Evergreen: Not much near-term hope for better days.

Robertson: Challenging at best. In a perverse way, the declining health of our forests – a direct result of wildfire,  insect infestations, diseases, and the months of smoke in the summer is the driving force behind increasing public concern for what’s happening and not happening in our forests.

As you know well, public backlash is the only thing that will cause the State Legislature and Congress to make positive changes in forest management policy that will reverse the economic and environmental disasters we are facing.

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