Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Rep. Jay Inslee, Forest Fires, Logging Practices, Bad Science, and Partisan Politics. Wow.

Today, C-Span briefly interrupted its broadcast of the Coretta Scott King funeral to air the day's perfunctory House of Representatives proceedings, which included an unannounced, unexpected, brief speech by Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) about the administration's tendency to muzzle scientists and referring to an Oregon State University study of reforestation practices following forest fires.

Inslee's one-minute speech seemed like just a brief blip on the radar nvolving a local issue, but he's on to something that should have more play. His short speech implicated science, lobbying, the environment, blue-collar communities, K-12 education, and fiscal responsibility, all in one minute. Not bad! Here's why:

First, what Inslee was referencing is the Administration's decision to eliminate funding for an Oregon State University study that contradicted the long-cherished forestry dictum that "salvage logging" is the best way to help forests recover from forest fires. The new study, by an Oregon State graduate student, shows that salvage logging actually hurts forest recovery and diversity. Not only does that conclusion step on the toes of a couple of Oregon State professors with strong political connections, but it threatens the huge profits that regional timber companies hope to earn by logging in the enormous Biscuit Fire burn in Southwestern Oregon (a fire that occurred, in large part, because the last generation's poor logging practices had created a huge fire hazard in second-growth stands).

That graduate student published a peer-reviewed article in the journal Science. And the Bush Administration immediately cut his funding. It's politics over science once again, only this time the article of faith at issue isn't creationism, but pillage-after-you-rape forest practices.

Eugene writer Russell Sadler has a great article on this controversy here.

Second, the administration's toying with the environmental health of forested Western counties has to be considered in the context of their economic health.

Rural counties, especially in the West, often are cash-strapped because much of their landmass consists of huge tracts of Forest SErvice, Bureau of Land Management, or other federal land that is exempt from paying property taxes. Long ago -- I'll research it and update -- the Feds agreed to pay local governments a percentage of logging revenues as a substitute form of property tax. That's why, when the spotted owl and other endangered species concerns started restricting logging, many residents of rural counties got so angry at environmentalists: not only were logging cutbacks harmful to timber industry jobs, but they also reduced the flow of federal logging dollars that supported those communities' schools, fire, law enforcement, and other services.

A few years ago -- again, I'll research and update -- someone got the great idea of making those federal payments to rural counties independent of logging revenue. That may sound like a kind of welfare, but it's not: it simply said that the feds would pay a sort of substitute property tax whether or not that revenue was related to logging. Everyone's good.

But the budget the White House sent to the House today cuts federal payments to rural counties IN HALF. In my Oregon county alone that's a reduction of about $50 million per year. It's hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue to Oregon, which is just starting to recover from the Bush Recession. That money will have to be made up somehow, which means tax increases for our citizens or severe cuts to schools, fire protection, and law enforcement (in my county, which stretches from the Pacific shoreline, over the Coast Range mountains, across the Willamette Valley, and all the way to the crest of the Cascades, we only have three sheriff's deputies on patrol at any given time right now!). And, of course, we don't have the option of raising property taxes on our County's largest landowner, the Federal Government.

Once federal payments were divorced from timber revenue, rural counties became increasingly open to the benefits of conservationism. Study after study has shown that eco-tourism can be more profitable than logging, and communities that struggled for survival as timber towns were finding good niches as salmon-fishing, backpacking, and vacation destinations. But now that the Feds are cutting back on forestland payments, those communities are likely to embrace logging again, as a way to generate revenue fast, even though the logging road is a dead end.

So I see the sabotage of academic research that discourages logging, and the cutbacks in federal payments to forest counties, as being intimately related -- even, given Karl Rove's dominance over all domestic policy initiatives, as a crass ploy to turn moderate, land-loving rural Western voters back into anti-environmental partisans.

It's going to hurt communities all over the West. It's underreported and too complex to make for good sound bites. And it's wrong, wrong, wrong.

SUPPLEMENT, FEB. 14, 2006: Further post on this topic here.

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