GRANTS PASS &

The federal government rolled out a plan Thursday to sharply increase logging on a checkerboard of lands in Western Oregon that provide habitat for the northern spotted owl and salmon as well as revenue for timber-dependent counties.




The draft environmental impact statement was produced by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to settle a lawsuit brought by the timber industry and timber-dependent counties demanding greater timber production from the area.




The agency's preferred alternative would bring back clearcut logging and nearly triple planned timber production while jettisoning the fish and wildlife habitat protections of the Northwest Forest Plan. Habitat for the spotted owl and marbled murrelets, two threatened species tied to old growth forests, would go down over the next 50 years, but increase over 100 years.




Oregon BLM Director Ed Shepard said the agency has been unable to meet its timber targets under the Northwest Forest Plan, the policy adopted in 1994 to comply with court rulings that stopped logging in old growth forests to protect salmon and spotted owl habitat. That, combined with the lawsuit, led them to develop the plan.




Project manager Dick Prather said the plan was designed to meld with the newly proposed recovery plan for the spotted owl, while boosting timber production to meet obligations to generate revenue for counties under the Oregon California Land Act of 1937.




County revenues are projected to go from $42 million a year to $108 million a year, and jobs related to BLM timber are estimated to increase by more than 3,000 from the current level of 9,000.




The plan was welcomed by timber-dependent counties, but criticized by conservation groups.




Some of the 18 counties that depend on the timber revenue most heavily have fallen on hard times, closing libraries and laying off sheriff's deputies, as the timber revenues and a federal safety net replacing them declined and citizens have refused to raise taxes on themselves.




Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said in a statement that the preferred alternative would go a long ways toward boosting local economies, while still protecting the environment.




Conservation groups said they would likely challenge the plan in court.




"Not so much has changed in the last 10 years that we can afford to essentially reverse our strategy," under the Northwest Frost Plan, said Mary Scurlock, attorney for Pacific Rivers council, a conservation group.




"It so frustrating to see this when we have examples around the Northwest of forest policy working, people can find common ground and move ahead," said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild. "Instead we have this plan with the Bush administration trying to turn back the clock to the late 1980s" when conflict raged over old growth logging.




To settle a lawsuit brought by environmental groups, the Northwest Forest Plan amended U.S. Forest Service and BLM forest management plans in 1994 to cut logging by more than 80 percent to protect habitat for spotted owls, salmon and other species that live in old growth forests.




It will likely take four or five years to get the plan in place and ramp up logging levels, said Chris West, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council, the timber industry group that brought the lawsuit.




"It represents a step back toward the commitment that was made to the counties and communities (by the federal government) and it's also a step in the right direction toward keeping these lands in perpetuity in well-managed forests," he said.




Bureau lands in Western Oregon form a checkerboard of one-mile squares interspersed with private timberlands. They once produced — billion board feet of timber a year, but more recently plans call for logging 268 million board feet. The preferred alternative would ramp that up to 727 million board feet. If only managed for timber, the lands could produce 1.2 billion board feet.




Recent efforts to boost logging in old-growth timber have been stopped by court rulings.




In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pulled authorization for logging to kill some spotted owls after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it had no scientific foundation. New authorization is expected by the time the plan, known as the Western Oregon Plan Revisions, goes into effect.