Environmental groups swing and miss on timber payments

2012-02-10 Ashley Bach

It’s been months now since local and federal leaders started trying to figure out a solution for timber-dependent counties in the West that are facing the loss of federal timber payments. In the meantime, the affected counties in Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho are already feeling the pinch.

In Lane County, Ore., the sheriff’s office is preparing to close half its jail beds, cuts its patrol staff to only four deputies and stop supervising parolees who are convicted of misdemeanors. Every department in the county, not just the sheriff’s office, will be forced to cut 25 percent of their budget next year.

California Watch just took an in-depth look at the timber payment problem in California and said the problem will be particularly acute in rural schools. According to Siskiyou County Schools Superintendent Kermith Walters, even if Congress comes up with a solution, it may come too late.

“The fact is the students are going to lose on this,” (Walters) said.

It’s not just the timber industry at stake – it’s the economies and well-being of rural residents across the West, according to the California Watch story.

For forest counties, timber brought more than just revenue: It provided jobs that kept families working, children in schools and enrollment afloat. When the timber industry left, so did families, draining schools of much-needed attendance money.

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of workers in logging in California dropped 65 percent, to 1,800, state data shows. Related industries, including wood product manufacturing and sawmills, have seen similar declines. The state now imports about 80 percent of its wood.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Joe Silva, Tuolumne County’s superintendent of schools. “We have the wood right here … but we’re restricting ourselves out of business.”

In Siskiyou and Trinity, California’s biggest timber counties, unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, are consistently higher than the state average – at 18.3 and 17.8 percent, respectively, compared with the state’s 10.9 percent in December. K-12 enrollment in both counties has dropped 30 percent in the last 15 years.

“What we’re seeing is people leaving because we don’t have anything here. We don’t have an economy,” said Walters, the superintendent, who has lived in Siskiyou County his entire life.

With such high stakes, it was disappointing to see environmental groups in Oregon come out with a tone-deaf proposal to replace the timber money. Instead of renewing the payments or increasing the timber harvest to help local residents, the environmental groups proposed raising the harvest tax on private forest owners and raising property taxes for residents of timber-dependent counties.

Reaction to the environmentalists’ proposal was quick.

“Their plan is simple and it won’t work,” said Oregon Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, and Republican Rep. Greg Walden.

The Medford Mail Tribune said a plan from the three congressmen to increase the timber harvest “might sound to most people like a reasonable compromise. But the environmental movement stopped compromising a long time ago.”

The Salem Statesman Journal:

…(T)his is no time to be increasing taxes, either on property owners or on timber companies. And given the status of Oregon’s timber harvest, even a substantial increase in the severance tax would be unlikely to produce substantial revenue…The environmentalists’ plan doesn’t make sense. By promoting it, they could derail a reasonable proposal from Oregon’s congressional delegation.

The Coos Bay World:

Conservation groups want Oregon’s timber counties to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But first, they want to take away our boots…If this is a joke, it’s a cruel one.