Timber payment extension is only tip of the iceberg

2013-10-03 Ashley Bach

Congress recently passed a one-year extension of timber payments to rural counties, with communities in Western states getting much of the funding. Oregon will get the largest share, and Washington counties like Skamania and Grays Harbor will also get payments for at least one more year.

As we've covered on this blog for the last few years, the economic plight of timber counties is dire, especially in the most timber-dependent states like Oregon, Washington and California. This is not the first time Congress has passed an extension of the timber payments in recent years, and it's welcome news for the rural counties, some of which are close to bankruptcy.

But it's also not nearly enough.

First off, the payments that were just approved by Congress are only a third of what the rural counties used to get. Even if they were the full amount, the payments last only for a year and do not address the deeper economic problems the counties face. 

"It's good to hear the money is coming in," said Gil Riddell,  an official with the Association of Oregon Counties. "We wouldn't send it back. But it's just not adequate."

...Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., called the money voted on Wednesday crucial short-term aid for "rural communities teetering on the edge of bankruptcy."

"But, let's be clear: this help is a lifeline, not a lifeboat," he added. "The status quo of asking Uncle Sam for a check year after year is not sustainable."

Leaders in some counties, like Polk County, Ore., are worried the one-year extension will persuade residents to vote down tax levies this year intended to provide a permanent funding source for government services.

(Polk County) just released results of a poll showing nearly 60 percent of voters support the (November public safety) measure, however that survey was taken before last week's vote. (County Sheriff Bob) Wolfe has already had people ask whether the levy was needed now that the timber payments have been renewed.

His answer? "Yes."

"This is not a fix to the problem," Wolfe said. "It's simply a Band-Aid."

Newspapers in Oregon say it's now time for the Senate to pass the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, a sweeping timber reform bill passed by the House last month. The bill also includes a large increase in the timber harvest on federal forestlands in Oregon known as "O&C lands" because they used to be owned by the Oregon and California Railroad.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, was instrumental in getting the timber payments extension passed and says he is also coming up with his own plan to increase the timber harvest.

The Albany Democrat-Herald says Wyden has to address the long-term problem:

As Wyden knows as well as anyone, the time is growing short for Oregon’s rural counties. He’s done good work to keep the timber payments alive for at least one more year – but now the time finally has come to think about these lands over the long term.

The Medford Mail Tribune agrees:

The recession is ending, but much more slowly in timber-dependent areas, to whose side the rising economic ship continues to list. Finding a reasonable solution that would allow a reasonable amount of harvest is the answer, much more so than success in holding out our hats for donations from Uncle Sam.

An O&C timberlands measure that passed the House in September clearly will not be approved by the Senate in the same form. But Sen. Wyden is working on a version that he says has a better chance not only to pass but to be signed by the president.

The House bill would set aside lands for timber harvest and other lands for conservation. It would provide some hope for communities and families for whom hope has been in short supply for going on two decades.

We have hopes, too — hopes that Wyden's bill will aim to accomplish similar goals and, in doing so, provide jobs rather than handouts.

Polk County Sheriff Bob Wolfe said rural counties, after so many years of uncertainty, need predictability, not stopgap measures.

"This is extremely frustrating," Wolfe said. "We can't keep living year-to-year on this hope and promise."