Wyden O&C bill gains key backing as ENR panel takes up slew of measures

Updated at 10 a.m. EST.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee tomorrow could vote on three controversial bills to expand logging on federal lands in the West, measures that have riled environmental groups.

But one of the measures, S. 1784, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), has earned new backing from environmentalists that could help smooth its passage from committee.

The panel may also vote on bills to designate wilderness in New Mexico and Colorado and to preserve and enhance funding for national parks.

The 20-bill docket also calls for votes on S. 2638, by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), to set deadlines for the Energy Department to decide on the merits of liquefied natural gas exports, and S. 2379, by Wyden, to implement major water agreements along the Oregon-California border (see related story).


But for conservation and forestry groups, the spotlight tomorrow will shine brightly on the trio of bills to accelerate logging on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service timberlands.

Each measure -- Wyden's S. 1784, Rep. Doc Hastings' (R-Wash.) H.R. 1526 and Sen. John Barrasso's (R-Wyo.) S. 1966 -- seeks to create logging and milling jobs, raise new revenues for rural counties and mitigate wildfire risks. All three have seen fierce opposition from conservation groups, some sportsmen and Democrats.

There's considerable uncertainty over which versions of the bills will receive votes, whether they'll garner majority support or whether they'll receive votes at all.

Moreover, the timing of the markup -- coming during Chairwoman Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) runoff re-election race with Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and less than two months before the Senate switches hands to Republicans -- will certainly affect the political calculus of panel members.

"It's going to be the Wild West on Thursday," said John Kober, executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Rivers Council, who has been heavily invested in Wyden's bill.

Wyden's office has offered little insight into what to expect when the panel takes up his measure to roughly double logging on about 2.5 million acres of BLM's so-called O&C lands in western Oregon.

But the revised draft Wyden will unveil Thursday has earned the backing of key environmentalists. One source said it has also earned support from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D).

A top Kitzhaber aide today said that the governor is not ready to support the bill at markup but that the measure coupled with a companion bill by DeFazio creates a "foundation for success" for conservation and reliable timber harvests.

If consensus can be reached, it would mark a major breakthrough for a bill Wyden has made a top priority in his fourth term.

Logging levels on O&C lands plummeted -- as they did in most of the Pacific Northwest -- after the northern spotted owl became a federally protected species in the early 1990s.

Wyden has worked for years to secure federal payments under the Secure Rural Schools program to compensate affected O&C counties, but those payments have dried up, and the political consensus in Oregon is that there needs to be some increased logging to cushion the financial pain.

Wyden's bill would trim environmental reviews and mandate the use of "ecological forestry" projects that seek a middle ground between tree thinnings and clearcuts, thus increasing timber harvests. It would also designate significant new wilderness, wild and scenic rivers and old-growth protections elsewhere in western Oregon.

The bill has thus far been opposed by most environmental and timber groups, which have mounted a fierce lobbying campaign to slow it down. And multiple sources close to the committee said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) -- who is next in line for the ranking member post at ENR if Landrieu loses her re-election -- has previously expressed concerns with the legislation.

But the bill tomorrow will be backed by Kober's Pacific Rivers Council, the Pew Charitable Trusts and Andy Kerr, an environmental lobbyist who has worked closely with regional and environmental groups on the bill.

"Senator Wyden has found the political sweet spot," said Kerr, who had opposed the bill up to this point. "It's a bill that can pass into law, will -- more than not -- protect the environment, will result in increased logs going to mills and resolve a thorny political issue."

Pacific Rivers and Pew have offered qualified support for Wyden's bill since it was introduced a year ago, but they now appear to be fully on board.

"This bill is not perfect, but it's a pretty decent balance," Kober said. "We worked hard to make sure federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act stayed intact."

That bodes well for Wyden, who will have an easier time selling the legislation to his Democratic colleagues, all of whom will presumably need to back the bill for it to pass.

Andy Stahl, executive director for Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore., said Wyden will also have the backing of DeFazio, support that would mark a key bicameral breakthrough.

If the bill passes ENR, Wyden, who chairs the Finance Committee, could seek to attach it to a tax extenders package or another must-pass bill during the lame duck, Stahl said. That package would presumably also seek an extension of Secure Rural Schools, Stahl said.

Such a package would be hard to turn down for some Western House Republicans, who -- while they may object to Wyden's forestry bill and the absence of legislation to boost logging in national forests -- have constituents who depend heavily on SRS funding, not to mention tax breaks.

Still, neither Wyden nor DeFazio has indicated whether a deal has been struck, and there are numerous ways in which Wyden's O&C bill and SRS could die during the lame duck.

Keith Chu, a spokesman for the senator, said only that "Wyden is committed to extending county payments as soon as possible through whatever avenue is available."

The clock is ticking fast on SRS, which distributes the bulk of its more than $300 million in annual payments to counties across the West early in the first months of the year. Barring congressional action, counties will get nothing in 2015, and will instead get a relatively paltry cut from federal timber revenues.

Failure is a poor option politically for a number of members of Congress.

Powerful timber interests may oppose Wyden's O&C bill, but how vociferously is unclear.

"It would be extremely unfortunate if he moves forward with legislation that does not have the support of his state's timber industry, his O&C counties, the House delegation, or any of his constituents who want to see an effective solution for our rural communities," said Nick Smith, executive director of the political advocacy group Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities and a former Republican aide. "His current legislation is not a balanced solution, but a sweetheart deal for environmental special-interest groups."

Other forestry bills

Smith's group has rallied behind DeFazio's O&C bill.

That measure, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), could theoretically also get a vote tomorrow at ENR as part of H.R. 1526, by Hastings, who is retiring as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

The Hastings bill passed the House in September 2013 on a 244-173 vote, garnering support from 17 Democrats.

Backed strongly by the logging industry, the bill would mandate that at least 6 billion board feet of timber be sold annually, which is more than double current harvest levels but half the high mark of 12.7 billion board feet harvested in 1987.

Environmental groups have strongly opposed the bill, calling it the "Forest Destruction Act" and warning that it would eviscerate bedrock environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The White House threatened to veto it.

Also on the docket is Barrasso's S. 1966, which would require the Forest Service to log or thin at least 7.5 million acres of national forests within the next 15 years using expedited NEPA and ESA reviews, a major uptick over current logging levels.

Barrasso, ENR ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other senators have long demanded that the panel take up a national forestry reform bill alongside Wyden's Oregon-centric measure, noting that timber harvests have dropped across the West.

Barrasso's bill has drawn concerns from environmental groups, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell, Wyden and Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). The Wilderness Society estimated that the measure would lead to a 150 percent increase over current logging levels.

Wilderness, parks

The panel will also take up S. 841, by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), to strengthen land protections for nearly 108,000 acres in the San Juan National Forest in southwest Colorado. It would also designate some 37,000 acres of wilderness.

Passage of the bill as drafted would set up a battle with House Natural Resources Republicans, who last summer amended and passed a companion bill by Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.). Republican changes to the Tipton bill bolstered access for snowmobiles and stripped some conservation language, causing key environmental and sportsmen's groups to defect.

The changes took Bennet's office by surprise.

Nevertheless, the bill has a glimmer of hope to pass Congress during the lame duck, given its Republican backing in the House.

The panel is also scheduled to vote on S. 776, by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), to designate the 45,000-acre Columbine-Hondo area in Taos County, N.M., as wilderness.

The panel may also take up bills by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), including S. 1750, to allow lands agencies including the National Park Service to enter into agreements with states to fund operations during government shutdowns, and S. 2104, to require NPS to refund six states -- Arizona, Colorado, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah -- the approximately $2 million they paid to reopen parks during the October 2013 government shutdown.

Other bills on the docket include:

  • S. 2602, by Cantwell, to establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area in the state of Washington.
  • S. 182, by Murkowski, to provide for the unencumbering of title to non-federal land owned by Anchorage, Alaska, for the purposes of economic development by conveyance of the federal reversion interest to the city.
  • S. 1419, by Wyden, to promote research, development and demonstration of marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy technologies.
  • S. 1971, by Murkowski, to establish an interagency coordination committee or subcommittee with the leadership of the departments of Energy and the Interior, focused on the nexus between energy and water production, use and efficiency.
  • S. 398, by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), to establish the Commission to Study the Potential Creation of a National Women's History Museum.
  • S. 2031, by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), to provide for the establishment of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, and for other purposes, and to adjust the boundary to that lakeshore to include the lighthouse known as Ashland Harbor Breakwater Light.
  • H.R. 885, by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), to expand the boundary of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
  • S. 1328, by Rep. Ron Kirk (D-Ill.), to authorize the Interior secretary to conduct a special resource study of the archaeological site and surrounding land of the New Philadelphia town site in Illinois.
  • H.R. 1241, by Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.), to facilitate a land exchange involving certain National Forest System lands in the Inyo National Forest.
  • S. 1437, by Wyden, to provide for the release of the reversionary interest held by the United States in certain land conveyed in 1954 by the United States, acting through the director of the Bureau of Land Management, to Oregon for the establishment of the Hermiston Agriculture Research and Extension Center of Oregon State University in Hermiston, Ore.
  • S. 2873, by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), to authorize the Interior secretary to acknowledge contributions at units of the National Park System.

Schedule: The markup is tomorrow, Nov. 13, at 3 p.m. in 366 Dirksen.

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