Timber counties struggle for sustainable solutions

2012-07-20 Ashley Bach

Timber counties in the West got some good news earlier this month when Northwest legislators announced they had secured a one-year extension of timber payments. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. The money barely made a dent in the counties’ financial problems and it did nothing to answer the larger question: how do rural counties historically dependent on timber payments keep themselves solvent in the long term?

Curry County, which comprises the southwest corner of Oregon, is ground zero for the problem. The county budget has been cut to just 39 percent of what its level was in 2008. County leaders had been working on a sales tax – which would be the only sales tax in the state – but that appears to be off the table because two of the three sitting county commissioners lost in the May primary election, likely because of their support for the sales tax.

Historically, many of the rural counties in Oregon were able to keep their property taxes much lower than the state average because of the timber payments. But because of state ballot measures over the years, the counties can only raise property taxes by a small amount each year.

Outgoing county commissioner George Rhodes said the new county leaders have to come up with something.

“This board can sit here and talk about what we want to do, but we must realize there is going to be a change in leadership,” Rhodes said emphatically. “If they don’t have the guts to say that’s what we need to do, then the county’s going to be in a bind. I don’t support anything on the ballot at this point.”

The Oregonian editorial board this week said it wasn’t encouraged by a state timber report that showed the harvest is still well below its average over the past 25 years.

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: Rural Oregon must nurture job-creating industries other than timber. It can be done. Consider some of the Oregon job engines outside of the Portland metro area that did not exist at the start of 1993, the last year the statewide timber harvest topped 5 billion board feet.

Tribes started offering casino-style gambling in 1993.Insitu, the drone-maker that has become an economic force in Hood River County, was founded in 1994. Google, whose data center in The Dalles is a small cog in a global empire, was born in 1996. Bandon Dunes, the first of five world-class courses at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Coos County, opened in 1999.

Long-term economic changes are afoot, the editorial board wrote:

The rebound in timber harvest the past two years proves that one aspect of forest economics remains unchanged — the timber industry is greatly influenced by consumer demand. And long-term trend lines for demand do not look promising. Smaller houses, a move toward use of green building products and delayed home ownership among young adults are just three reasons for concern. These economic trends amplify the importance of Oregon succeeding in its efforts to become a hub for green-building industries.

Community leaders in Eugene said this week that a plan by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader to split key timber lands roughly 50-50 between preservation and harvest is a worthy compromise that would bring much-needed money to counties.

The Oregon plan could also be adapted for other Western states and has the support of the timber industry.

The bill proposed by our congressmen would provide the county revenues and job opportunities of which we are in dire need. The alternatives are higher taxes, the loss of more local jobs and the loss of vital county services, none of which are in our communities’ best interests. Our congressmen have worked hard to find a viable solution to a thorny problem.