Timber counties searching for an answer from Congress

2014-01-03 Ashley Bach

Northwest timber counties got some good news over the holidays when federal leaders announced that new federal timber subsidies won't be subject to the budget cuts known as sequestration. But the counties' financial situation is still dire.

In Josephine County in Southwest Oregon, the local budget is so thin that sheriff's deputies only respond to "life-threatening situations." With so few deputies to cover the county, all other callers are out of luck. As Fox News recently covered, this lack of law and order has caused armed neighborhood watch groups to form and start patrolling the county.

“Who else is going to protect you when your government can't?” said (former Josephine County sheriff's deputy Ken Selig).

Curry County in Southern Oregon doesn't have armed citizens' groups just yet, but County Sheriff John Bishop recently told his local paper that Curry's situation isn't much better than Josephine's. 

That logging paid for most of the county’s government services in decades past, and with the demise of its tax revenues last year, commissioners are scrambling to fill a $3.5 million shortfall. The paltry existing property tax garners barely enough money to fund the Sheriff’s Office, which takes the biggest chunk from that budget.

Bishop is now up to five road deputies — and another is in training — to patrol more than 1,600 square miles, including such far-flung areas as Harbor, Langlois and Agness. Response times are long, and sometimes, officers will only be dispatched if the situation means the difference between life or death.

The next several months will likely not bode well for his department, either, Bishop said. He hopes to keep at least some of the beds in the jail open — a full closure would necessitate reopening a jail that actually meets building codes — and retain his job and that of a civil deputies, as required as minimum standards by state law.

For Oregon, there are several proposals in Congress to increase the state's federal timber harvest, including two separate proposals from Sen. Ron Wyden to increase the harvest in Western Oregon and Eastern Oregon. A more aggressive proposal from Rep. Peter DeFazio would put some of Oregon's federal timberland in a public trust, an idea that was echoed in part by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week that advocated for charter forests, much like charter schools.

Many timber groups in Oregon have rallied around DeFazio's proposal to address federal forest mismanagement and help rural counties, a dynamic which the Roseburg News-Review characterized this way: "Wyden nibbles at the problem. DeFazio bites its head off."

All timber states should be concerned about what Oregon comes up with because whatever works will likely be tried in other states or expanded nationally.

According to the Oregonian editorial board, something needs to be passed to help timber counties. The paper said this recently about Wyden's proposal for the timber harvest in Eastern Oregon. 

Those promises (about avoiding overregulation in Wyden's plan) might not be particularly reassuring to those who are unemployed and used to work in the timber industry. The eastern Oregon counties of Grant, Harney and Crook have Oregon's three highest unemployment rates. The remote counties have fewer options for tourism jobs than those on the coast and less chance at attracting manufacturers than communities along the Interstate 5 or Interstate 84 corridors. But the next couple of months offer the best chance in years to agree on legislation that would increase timber-industry employment while providing necessary environmental safeguards.