The Oregon Board of Forestry is on the verge of finalizing a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) with the federal government that has fostered distrust and dismay in rural communities again. The HCP provides new governance for state forest lands that will dramatically reduce timber harvests below already low levels. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) developed the plan without participation from any of the public officials representing people in the impact zone.
An HCP is desired by all parties. The plan protects fish and wildlife, enhances water quality, and provides a structure for some timber harvests. However, counties feel that ODF has betrayed them once again. Counties were told that by supporting the HCP, about 226 million board feet would be available for harvest each year. But a few months ago, ODF said their modeling math skills were once again weak, and the new harvest level would be as much as 34% less than estimated.
Rural communities feel like the turnip that has been squeezed too many times. But ODF’s revenue loss is also significant and risks defunding many of its conservation programs that protect forest health. The reduction in funds is estimated at tens of millions of dollars a biennium, on top of the depleted budget that has found ODF struggling to manage cash flow.
Karla Chambers is a member of the Board of Forestry. She is also a former Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco member. Chambers knows numbers.
“I just want to remind the board that last December, we had less than a month of cash flow. And as we balance, we have economic hardship just like the counties here, and I think that we have to do everything we can to achieve a better outcome on this HCP.
We have a 3-year average of $111 million in fire costs. We have a $50 million loan to the E-Board. This is another $28 million expenditure. We have 6% inflation and a 7% increase in PERS. And if anyone thinks we can afford this, I want them to show me the numbers. We have state lands 11% behind budget. More than that, this is a lose-lose for trust counties.
Member: Board of Forestry Feb 15, 2023
Translation: If ODF were a bank or credit union, federal regulators would be seizing it, firing the CEO and the Board, placing it into conservatorship, selling assets to pay debts, and recovering what was left for investors.
The HCP is not a short-term ‘let’s see how it goes’ project. It is a 70-year contract that, once signed, will require the state to live by its decision for an entire generation. A decision of such magnitude should be made thoughtfully and with all options thoroughly considered. This has not been the case. ODF chose its approach and presented its plan to the Board as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Some members of the Board were surprised to learn they were not given a suite of options. “Nope,” replied ODF. This way or no way, and there is no way you can say ‘no way.’
Yet it appears ODF has set aside less acreage for active harvest management than required by the Endangered Species Act to meet conservation goals. When Board members questioned ODF officials about going back and developing a new plan that would meet the ESA without the devastating loss of revenue, agency leadership balked, saying it would take too much time, be more costly, and could prove “risky.” Board members expressed dismay.
“I wish we had more, better options. I don’t know if we will get anything better by trying.” Ben Deumling
Counties like Marion and Clatsop that we represent believe the Board should not surrender to ODF’s positioning as Fait Accompli. ODF depends on revenue from those sustainable harvests to deliver to rural fire districts, water and soil conservation districts, and schools, to name a few. It stands to lose the revenue needed to pay foresters, manage forests to mitigate fire risk, protect habitat through restoration projects, and meet the goals of other conservation projects. Rural communities would lose more jobs, be unable to provide as many public services, and face erosion of the very fabric of their communities. Is that what “greatest permanent value” looks like? Permanence, maybe, but many struggle to find where value fits in.
ODF expected a rubber stamp without giving the Board a choice. There is still time for the Board to take a fresh look and develop a stronger plan that meets the stringent requirements of the Endangered Species Act while not further depleting ODF or rural communities’ resources. Another two years may seem acceptable, considering a possible 70-year mistake as the alternative.
Various parties will level emotional objections, no matter the decision. At least one member of the Board would have to be willing to push back against ODF, reconsider their decision, and demand an alternative approach. But during the February board meeting, even those members who voted not to restart the process expressed doubts that this plan was everything they thought it should be.
“I am hearing about all the real consequences of this HCP,” said Chandra Ferrari.
“We have less money to manage these lands, and it’s going to get worse. I am willing to take a look back at this. It pains me,” said a dispirited Chairman Jim Kelly.
The one item remaining in the queue now is whether the Board of Forestry will reconsider initiating a new plan in the next two months before the current plan is scheduled to be finalized. If so, then the question is, WHOOOOOO!