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The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday released its long-awaited plan for managing roughly 2.5 million acres of federal forestland in western Oregon, including areas of Benton and Linn counties, and counties that rely on timber for revenue quickly threatened legal action.

Counties threatening to file a lawsuit against the BLM include Linn County, one of the 17 counties in the Association of O&C Counties. Even though it contains more than 50,000 acres of the so-called O&C lands, Benton County is not a member of the association and officials said they would not be joining the lawsuit. (See related story.)

“Look, we don’t want safety-net payments in lieu of cutting timber,” said Linn County Commissioner John Lindsey. “We want to create a sustainable forest economy.”

Linn County officials said the county would contribute $24,000 toward potential litigation costs.

The lands known as “O&C” are a patchwork of one-mile squares once deeded by the federal government to the Oregon & California Railroad. The lands went back to the government after the railroad failed and are now managed by the BLM.

The agency has spent years working to update the Northwest Forest Plan, trying to strike a balance between the interests of the timber industry and environmentalists. The original plan developed in the mid-1990s failed to deliver promised yields of timber, in part because of federal laws to protect species like salmon and the northern spotted owl.

The proposal released Tuesday and still months from being formally adopted calls for three-quarters of the land to be locked up in reserves for fish, water and wildlife. The agency estimates the plan will provide 278 million board feet of timber per year, an increase of 75 million from what’s currently offered.

Despite the boost, 17 Western Oregon counties that get a chunk of revenue from timber sales contend it’s not enough and announced plans to sue. “Their plan’s illegal as far as we’re concerned and the counties have no alternative but to challenge it in court,” said Tony Hyde, a Columbia County commissioner and president of the Association of O&C Counties.

In a written statement released Tuesday morning, Hyde said, “The BLM refused to even consider revenues for counties as an objective in developing its plan. There are many ways the BLM could have balanced jobs and revenues for vital county services while creating habitat for endangered species, providing clean water, recreational opportunities, and improving fire resiliency. Once again, the federal government has failed the communities where these lands are located.”

Bureau of Land Management project manager Mark Brown said the agency is aware of the economic situation faced by counties and the plan strives to produce the maximum amount of timber in a sustained manner.

“BLM believes in order to provide a sustained yield of timber we must take care of our other legal responsibilities, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act,” he said. “If we fail to do so, we will find ourselves embroiled in litigation across the landscape.”

During the heyday of the logging industry, some county governments got so much money from O&C payments that they didn’t charge property taxes. Now, many are struggling.

Some conservation groups, meanwhile, also found fault with the plan. John Kober, executive director of Pacific Rivers, said the federal agency made improvements to protect clean water and native fish but still places “too much value” in subsidizing county governments.

“Unfortunately, due to rapacious logging of private and state lands, all of the burden for conservation is placed on federal lands,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden issued a statement calling for congressional action: “It seems to me legislation is the only way to take this discussion out of the courtroom and actually create jobs, protect Oregon’s treasures and improve the health of our forests.”

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio took exception with the BLM’s plan, saying in a press release that it “moves us further from a balanced sustainable plan based in modern forest science,” DeFazio said in a press release. “With this plan, the Bureau of Land Management makes minimal use of Norm Johnson and Jerry Franklin’s ecologically-based forest management strategy on a tiny fraction of the O&C land base. I believe it is likely to reduce the already minimal supply of sustainable harvest, jeopardizing more jobs, rural communities and small, efficient mills.”

Added DeFazio: “The House has twice passed legislation seeking the delicate balance that would save remaining old growth while utilizing ecological forestry for a dispersed sustainable harvest on the O&C land base. It is time for the Senate to break the legislative logjam and put forward a compromise that can be enacted into law.”

The county’s litigation comes on the heels of a $1.4 billion class action lawsuit filed in March by the Linn County Board of Commissioners charging the Oregon Department of Forestry with failing to meet timber harvesting contracts. Other counties may join that lawsuit.

Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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