A group of retired foresters backed by the timber industry filed three initiative petitions this week looking to counter what they say are “radical anti-forestry ballot initiatives being pursued by environmental extremists.”

The measures would give Oregon counties and the wood products industry more control over how members on the state Board of Forestry are selected. They would amend the state constitution, requiring the state to fully compensate woodland owners for any new regulations that limited their ability to log, such as expanded stream buffers. And they would require that the forestry board use “non-biased” and “peer reviewed science” to come up with consensus-based policies.

Jim James, a forestry consultant and executive director of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, is one of the chief petitioners. He said he was not acting on behalf of the association, though it is mentioned in the initiative petitions. The Oregon Forest Industries Council, a timber industry trade group, is serving as treasurer of the campaigns.

“I’m a professional forester and have had a long career in the industry,” James said. “When I became aware of the three anti-forestry ballot measures, I became very passionate about how wrong those were and I reached out to others to push back on these absolutely crazy initiatives they proposed.”

Environmental groups filed three ballot measures earlier this year to tighten aerial herbicide spraying rules, increase forest stream buffers, prohibit logging in steep, landslide-prone areas and prohibit conflicts of interest for state forestry board appointees.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno rejected all three petitions, saying they violated rules that prohibit measures that address more than a single policy topic. Environmental groups are taking her to court over that decision, but have since filed new versions of the petitions that they claim address Clarno’s concerns.

Now the forestry groups have filed their own countermeasures.

The dueling ballot measures go the heart of the timber tug of war that has been playing out in Oregon for four decades. Once centered on the shutdown of federal forests over endangered species concerns, the divide over policies also spread to private and state forests. Indeed, that partisan divide could become a deciding factor in how the legislative session plays out next year, with likely battles over climate change policies and wildfire funding.

As it stands, the controversy is currently being spotlighted in a $1 billion lawsuit in which 14 rural counties are suing the state for breach of contract, saying it has failed to maximize logging on state forests.

Environmental groups have long contended that Oregon has some of the weakest forest protection rules in the West. They say the rules fail to ensure the protection of endangered species and their habitats, as well as the health and safety of rural residents. They describe the forestry ballot measures as a power grab by the industry that would limit the discretion of the state board, and possibly lock the state in the same constitutional debate over property rights and land use safeguards that came with the 2004 passage of the far-reaching Measure 37. Voters subsequently overturned most of those reforms with the passage of Measure 49 in 2007.

“With this measure, industry wants to change the Oregon constitution to make Oregonians pay them to not pollute rivers and streams with excessive clearcutting on steep slopes, said Ralph Bloemers, senior staff attorney for the Crag Law Center, a nonprofit that represents conservation groups and local residents throughout Oregon.

“They expect to be paid if Oregonians decide to limit their ability to spray toxic chemicals near drinking water supplies, homes and schools,” he said. “I don’t expect Oregonians will be fooled twice.”

James, meanwhile, insists that there is no scientific evidence that wider stream buffers would help salmon habitat, as environmentalists contend. He says the new regulations proposed in the environmental petitions would prevent active forest management in many areas, cause more wildfires, and result in an uncompensated taking of land from private owners. And while he could not cite a specific example, he said the forestry board’s policy-making has been hobbled by a divide among conservation and industry-oriented members.

“If there was more of a collaborative model,” he said, “things would happen more quickly and they would be more balanced and fair.”

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