Foresters say plan creates healthy forest; measure backers would preserve halfBoth sides in the debate over ballot Measure 34 claim to want a balance between sustainable timber production, recreational opportunities and environmental protections and habitat health in the Clatsop and Tillamook state forests.

The gloves come off, however, in the arguments over whether that balance can be achieved under current harvesting and forest management practices.

"Forestry is a long-term investment" said Tillamook District Forester Mark Labhart, with the Oregon Department of Forestry. "We've only implemented the plan for three years." The department needs a chance to implement its plans, he said, in order to create healthy stands of trees with characteristics of old growth forests.

"We'll look at it after 10 years to see if it's on the right track," Labhart said. "There's no way we can mess this forest up in 10 years."

Some environmentalists disagree.

"The current management of the Tillamook and Clatsop state forests is frankly appalling," said Donald Fontenot, Sierra Club issue coordinator for the Tillamook Forest. "The priority of timber production is over the other amenities we get from the forest - recreation, clean water. All of those other amenities do not have an equal priority, so something has to change."

Environmentalists are proposing that change in the form of ballot Measure 34, commonly called the Tillamook 50/50 plan. The measure would place half of the land in the Clatsop and Tillamook forests in permanent reserves to create old-growth forests. This would affect timber production in 259,000 acres of forest lands - an area more than three times the size of Portland. Timber harvests and restoration activities would be allowed to continue as they are now on the other half (see related story link below).

This would provide safeguards for the clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational activities that all Oregonians enjoy while still allowing for timber harvesting, its proponents argue.

"You can't get much more balanced than 50/50," said Mari Anne Gest, campaign director of the Yes on 34 Political Action Committee.

The measure's opponents, however, say placing half of the forests in reserves would be devastating for the economies of Clatsop and Tillamook counties, which are promised timber revenues under deed agreements with the state. Timber revenues account for just under a quarter of Clatsop County's $15.8 million general fund, and commissioners in both counties are already anticipating cutbacks that would have to be made if the ballot measure is implemented.

Measure opponents add that the existing forest management plan was adopted after years of expert testimony and careful consideration for environmental and recreational issues in the forests.

"Science-based policy is not well made by a popularity vote," said former board of forestry member Howard Sohn.

What value?The Oregon Department of Forestry manages the state forests to maintain the "greatest permanent value" for Oregonians. Under this rule, the state forester is charged with maintaining the forest lands to provide timber revenues while keeping the forest healthy.

Tillamook 50/50 plan supporters argue that this does not represent the greatest value to Oregonians. Instead, they hold that more emphasis on protection of drinking water, wildlife habitats, native forests and recreational opportunities is necessary to maintain a balance with timber harvests. The ballot measure was launched by the Tillamook Rainforest Coalition, a Portland-based environmental group that is made up of fishermen, conservationists, landowners and others concerned with the state forests.

The current forest management plan is too susceptible to political influences from the counties, timber companies and Republican legislators in the state House of Representatives, said Gest.

"Everyone at the table is looking at the forest as a cash cow," said Gest. "They were trying to do the right thing (with the forest management plan), but it's the outside pressures put on them. They are actually treating it as a tree farm instead of a state forest."

The current management plan would allow for the harvest of 85 percent of the forest over 25 years, Gest said, and the last legislative session decided to increase clear cutting by 51 percent.

While the local counties may benefit from timber revenues, the rest of the state deserves to benefit from the state forests, argued Gest. It's a state forest, not a county forest, she said, noting that the Tillamook forest was replanted by a statewide $12 million bond passed in 1948.

The bond was just a loan, however, and the counties that benefit from timber revenues are paying the state back. But Gest said that because the payments are interest-free - and in 1948 dollars - the argument still stands.

"This is an Oregon forest, it's not a Tillamook forest," said Gest. "If they're managing only to raise revenue for Tillamook County or the timber companies, it doesn't make sense. It's not for the values of somebody in Eugene, who paid for the forest."

The idea behind the reserves is to protect water, fish and wildlife in areas where timber production will not motivate management activities. Scientists who reviewed the existing plan before its implementation called for permanent reserves, said Gest. But none were included in the final plan.

Old-growth issuesAlthough state foresters are now working to create forest structures that resemble old-growth stands, rotating harvests decrease the chances that true old-growth conditions will exist.

"The older forest structure stands (created under the current plan) are clear cut eventually. They're not going to last forever," said Chuck Willer, director of the Coast Range Association. While structure based management might be a good concept, he said, it shouldn't be the way to manage an entire forest. This is especially true because the land surrounding the Clatsop and Tillamook forests are mostly private lands on which trees are harvested every 40 to 45 years, he added.

"Managing the entire forest estate for structure based management within a sea of industrial plantations is an extreme strategy for public land management," said Willer.

Placing half of the forests in reserves will have economic benefits as well, Willer argued. Businesses are attracted to places where educated and employable workers live. Educated and employable workers want to be where the quality of life is high, which often coincides with the availability of recreational opportunities, he said.

"It's a great tourist commodity," Gest said. "Tourism and recreation in our state are one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy. Logging is 3 percent. If our future economy is based on recreation and tourism, then it makes more sense to leave at least half of the forest or try to manage it for an old growth forest."

However, Tillamook County Commissioner Tim Josi argued that jobs in the recreation industry are generally service sector jobs that don't pay well. What the counties need, he said, are high-paying manufacturing jobs like those in the timber industry.

"We already have in rural Oregon an overabundance of minimum- or low-wage jobs," said Josi. Supporters of the measure "want to take away some of the few remaining family wage jobs that we have."

But timber is only one of the resources in the forest, said Gest, who noted that the state forests provide 350,000 people with their drinking water.

"I think that over time, in 40 years, the most important commodity out of that forest is going to be water," she said. "It's going to be like gold."

'Systematic process'

Opponents of the measure argue that the main features of the Tillamook 50/50 plan already had their chance, when large permanent reserves and reduced harvest levels were some of the options considered by the Board of Forestry for the forest management plan.

"The systematic process through which the existing forest management plan was developed is a very thorough, thoughtful process based on science, public input and board responsibility," said Sohn, chairman of the Lone Rock Timber Co.

Sohn was on the board of forestry when the current plan was approved, but has since retired. "You hear from everybody, it's an open policy process. Not everybody gets what they want, and that's what happened here."

He added that ballot measures are not a good way to set policies as complex as forest management.

"Good forest policy is science-based and deliberative, carefully weighing all the complex factors," Sohn wrote. "A popular vote on oversimplified ideas is not a good way to make forest policy."

However, the environmental groups supporting Measure 34 said that the board of forestry ignored them and others who argued for reserves during the planning process; forest managers and others said that everyone was heard.

The process "involved all the environmental groups, citizens, foresters and academics in hundreds of meetings over a seven-year period," said Mark Nelson of the Salem-based Alliance to Keep Our State Forests Working, a timber industry group which is spearheading opposition to the measure.

"The Department of Forestry was not pro-timber industry, but they rejected the extreme proposal by this group." Nelson noted that the timber industry was concerned with the harvest levels set by the forest management plan as well, because they were lower than what studies suggested the forest could sustain.

Permanent and extensive reserves are not necessarily a good thing for the state forests, said Sohn. Old-growth forests were never static - periodic fires and other natural events destroyed habitat, bringing diversity and change to the forests.

"The idea of permanent reserves, of doing something on the landscape and committing to it forever, ignores not just the dynamic character of the landscape, but the changing state of knowledge," he said. The existing plan is more adaptable and is designed to be able to change according to what monitoring programs or new science suggest, he added.

While environmentalists fear that 85 percent of the forest will be cut over the next quarter century, those involved with the existing forest management plan said those harvest levels are unattainable. To cover that much acreage, loggers would have to clear cut and partial cut the maximum number of acres allowed each year, while not recutting any previously managed areas, said Ron Zilli of the Department of Forestry.

"It's impossible for us to operate under that level," said Zilli. "We've never operated at the utmost high end of either of those acreages."

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