(CN) – A deal forged between the timber industry and green groups has a chance to be a model for environmental fights across the nation.
Steven Beda, an assistant professor of history at Oregon University, said land-use deals between environmental advocates and natural-resource extraction companies have happened in small scale in places like Quincy, California, for instance.
“But never have we seen something like this at the state level,” he said. “There’s been environmental conflicts since the 1600s, and there will always be fights and debates, but this shows there are amicable ways to solve them.”
Beda is talking about a deal reached between timber industry representatives like Weyerhauser, one of the largest timber companies in the world, and environmental groups like Oregon Wild that established broad outlines for forest-management practices in the Beaver State while avoiding competing ballot initiatives and their almost certain attendant lawsuits.
When Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced the deal Monday, she called it historic.
“This pact proves that when we work together with a willingness to compromise, we can create a better future in Oregon,” said Brown. “Oregonians want healthy forests and fish, a vibrant forest sector, and prosperous rural communities. These are not mutually exclusive goals.”
The basic tenets of the agreement include a cessation of aerial pesticide spraying, long been despised by environmentalists. When forest companies cut timber on private land, they can use pesticides to keep certain weeds from outcompeting favored trees like Douglas firs.
But groups like Oregon Wild say such practices lead to poor public health outcomes as pesticide drift can impact local communities and contaminate drinking water. The deal also calls for both sides to hammer out a habitat conservation plan aimed at providing more protection for endangered species.
“The agreement envisions significant gains for clean water, healthy forests, and community transparency around logging practices,” said Sean Stevens, executive director of Oregon Wild.
Beda said it was both heartening and surprising to see Oregon Wild at the table, as it was one of the organizations most embittered during the timber wars of the 1990s and was largely responsible for attempting to get the spotted owl listed under the Endangered Species Act – a listing that hobbled the timber industry in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.
“They were hated by the industry during the 80s and 90s, but it’s interesting to see these groups that were once at each other’s throats now compromising,” he said.
There is political calculation for both sides.
Aerial pesticide spraying is widely unpopular in Oregon.
Voters in Lincoln County, which encompasses a swath of the central coast in Oregon, approved a ban on the practice in 2016. Recent polling has shown voters favor a ban even in areas where logging is popular.
“If a ban on aerial spraying was on the ballot, voters would pass it,” Beda said.
But groups like Oregon Wild have their own problems too.
When the U.S. Forest Service proposed to do a forest-thinning project in the Eagle Cap Wilderness in eastern Oregon in 2017, environmental groups sued to stop it. Then this past August, a wildfire broke out in the very area forest managers wanted to thin.
“I think there is a realization that logging can play a role in sound forest management,” Beda said.
Furthermore, one of the best outcomes of the deal, according to Beda, is that both sides stay out of court and avoid the high cost of litigation.
“Just look at how much the Forest Service spends on fending off litigation from both sides,” Beda said. “Some of these agencies are so busy fighting legal attacks, they can’t do the job of managing the forest.”
But Beda is quick to caution that while the deal is historic and has a chance to be a model for industry and environmental advocates the world over to sit down and craft difficult compromises, there is a lot of work to be done on this specific deal.
“I’d like to hope this is a new model, but it’s also too early to tell,” he said.
Specifically, both sides will have to continue to work on the habitat conservation plan and there is no guarantee that the acrimony that has characterized conflicts over forest management won’t seep into the process and ultimately land both sides back in court.
Even while celebrating the deal, the players recognize this potential.
“This agreement is only the first step in a longer journey,” said Stevens of Oregon Wild. “It will require significant work over the next two years to modernize forest rules and secure a lasting legacy that benefits all Oregonians.”