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WOPR Goes Down in Flames
By Felice Pace, High Country News Goat Blog
July 20, 2009

In a development applauded by environmental interests and even some Oregon politicians, the US Department of Interior announced on July 16th that it would withdraw the proposed Western Oregon Plan Revisions (WOPR) because it “is legally indefensible.”

The WOPR was part of a suite of efforts by the Bush Administration to weaken protections for the Northern Spotted Owl, other wildlife, fish and clean water in order to increase logging on public lands in Western Washington, Western Oregon and Northwest California. Most of these attempts have been defeated; some are still pending. For example, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in NW California has proposed large timber sales within the Old Growth Reserves established pursuant to the Clinton-era Northwest Forest Plan. Here’s a photo of older forests in these reserves which the Forest Service claims need to be logged to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

Conservationists claim that removing mature trees from the reserves will increase rather than decrease the risk of damage by wildfire. Their arguments are supported by a scientific study which was published recently in the influential journal Conservation Biology. The study “found no increasing threat of severe wildfires destroying old growth forests in the drier areas where the owl lives in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.”

Efforts to increase big tree logging on West Coast public lands has also been setback by an Obama Administration decision to withdraw the Bush-era Spotted Owl Recovery Plan which had substantially reduced forest areas designated as “critical habitat” for the Northern Spotted Owl. An Inspector General report found that politics had compromised science in development of the Recovery Plan. The WOPR – as well as many other proposals to log older public forests – were based on the Recovery Plan which has now been withdrawn.

In an editorial commenting on the WOPR’s withdrawal, the Medford Mail Tribune Newspaper of Southern Oregon editorialized that the withdrawal was “sensible” because the WOPR “overreached.” The newspaper called for the BLM to “replace that flawed document with a new plan rather than continuing to sell timber under the Clinton administration's Northwest Forest Plan.” According to Mail Tribune editors “the trick will be to fix the shortcomings of the 1994 plan, which never produced the harvest levels it was designed to allow, without weakening necessary protections for healthy forests and the species that depend on them.”

What the Mail Tribune and many local officials are calling for, however, may be impossible. Even in times of high demand for wood products, the cost of removing timber from steep and remote western public forests dictates that big trees must be logged and the forest canopy must be opened significantly or even clearcut. Timber sales that do not include the “incentive” provided by big trees and clearcuts (the Forest Service and BLM call them “regeneration” cuts) do not attract buyers.

Some resource economists and community forestry advocates argue that illegally weakening wildlife and stream protection is the only way a timber sale can be designed that will actually be bought by a timber company. These folks want the federal government to end the commercial timber sale program and instead directly hire or contract local loggers to remove the smaller trees and brush associated with intense, fast moving forest fires. Commercial logs removed in this way, say these advocates, can be sold to wood products firms from log sort yards after they are removed from the woods.

This sort of basic reform would, however, require federal legislation; no legislation of this type is currently being considered by Congress.

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