Alex Baumhardt

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) A plan to protect threatened and endangered species in Oregon’s Western state forests by limiting some logging will move forward for now, despite a recent attempt to make last-minute changes that could have further delayed it.

The Oregon Board of Forestry decided Thursday not to vote on a controversial proposal from Chair Jim Kelly that would have allowed logging on some land currently earmarked for conservation under the pending Western Oregon State Forest Habitat Conservation Plan. If Kelly’s proposal had been approved, key votes on the plan likely would have moved into the summer rather than spring of 2024, continuing to delay federal protection for 17 vulnerable animal species. The plan was originally slated to be finished in fall of 2022.

Environmentalists previously told the Capital Chronicle they were concerned about Kelly’s proposed changes, while timber industry representatives said they felt relieved. Several people on the seven-member, governor-appointed board expressed confusion over Kelly’s decision to propose changes so late in the process.

“I’m sorry that you’re being put in this position,” Brenda McComb, a board member, said to forest department staff at the meeting. “Now expectations have been raised that you will somehow, at some point, go back and probably try to find more timber when you’ve already done a good job putting together a scientifically based plan.”

The Oregon Department of Forestry has spent years working on a habitat conservation plan for the state’s Western forests which, if approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service next spring, would go into effect in the next few years. It would protect Northern spotted owls, marbled murrelets, salmon and steelhead, martens, red tree voles, torrent salamanders and other threatened or endangered species in about half of the state’s 630,000 acres of Western forests. It would also mean the loss of some timber harvesting areas and revenue for timber companies and counties that have used the portion of those revenues they receive by law to help fund public services.

The Board of Forestry has spent years on the plan, trying to find a resolution between conservationists, timber industry representatives and county leaders.

Kelly previously told the Capital Chronicle that his proposal to open more of the plan’s conservation lands to logging was an effort to better represent all sides of the issue and get the plan over the finish line after decades of attempts. The state Forestry Department this spring projected lower-than-expected timber harvests for the first few years under the Habitat Conservation Plan.

“This has been tried more than once and failed in the last 20 years,” Kelly told the Capital Chronicle, “and we’re trying to be dedicated to having this be successful.”

At Thursday’s meeting, State Forests Division Chief Mike Wilson reassured board members that projections for harvests and revenues for the first few years were still being analyzed, and that harvest targets discussed with timber companies and the board would be reached.

The development of the Western forests habitat conservation plan was accelerated following a settlement between the Oregon Department of Forestry and several conservation groups over a lawsuit alleging logging was further threatening endangered coastal coho salmon. Part of that settlement agreement included the forestry department’s assurance that the Western Oregon State Forest Habitat Conservation Plan would be passed.

Once finalized, the plan must be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If approved, the new plan would protect the state from lawsuits over those vulnerable species that are protected, or expected soon to be protected, under the Endangered Species Act.