Waiting on Congress to act


If there was ever a time for the timber industry to be closely watching Congress, it is now. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would have massive importance on two issues of paramount concern to the industry: the Ninth Circuit decision on logging roads and the end of federal payments to timber-dependent counties in Oregon and Washington.

Early word is encouraging on one of the issues and much less certain on the other. President Obama just signed an omnibus spending bill that includes a one-year delay in the implementation of the Ninth Circuit decision. The delay became law just days after the U.S. Supreme Court signaled it may take the case and while a permanent repeal of the Ninth Circuit decision is still being considered by Congress.

Northwest timber leaders lauded passage of the one-year delay in a press release from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who helped get the delay passed.

“This development is a step in the right direction and should open the door for a process leading to permanent resolution,” said Steve Stinson, Managing Partner of the Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm in Toledo, WA.  “Our family forest business produces green, family wage jobs in our rural economy that must already comply with the most stringent forest practices rules in the nation.  This legislation will prevent a costly and redundant regulatory burden.

Meanwhile, the effort to get timber payments restored to timber-dependent counties is still very much up in the air. The counties in Oregon met with Gov. John Kitzhaber this week. The state government, dealing with its own budget shortfalls, won’t be able to help the counties financially but will help try to get a renewal of the payments passed in Congress, Kitzhaber said.

Until that happens, several counties could go bankrupt, unable to provide even basic services like police or fire or marriage licenses, as early as next year. An op-ed this week from Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader (Ore.) describes the problem in more detail.

A recent Oregon State University study found that without county payments, Oregon’s rural counties will shed between 3,000 and 4,000 jobs. Oregon business sales will drop by an estimated $385 million to $400 million. Counties will lose $250 million to $300 million in revenues.

Counties already near the financial cliff and facing depression­like unemployment soon may call for a public safety emergency and will be forced to eliminate most state-mandated services — including services that help the neediest citizens in our communities.

Failing counties will have consequences for the entire state. Those counties will continue to release offenders and close jail beds. Potholed roads and structurally deficient bridges will be neglected. And already-underfunded rural schools will be devastated.

Curry County, on the Oregon Coast, could shut down as early as this summer. The Oregonian traveled there and this week published a devastating look at the county’s well-being and forecast for the future. Not only are county government and local businesses already stretched to the brink, but efforts in Congress to revew the timber payments are uncertain at best.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden sponsored a bill to restore federal funding four more years, at reduced amounts. The bill has a chance in the Senate, but not in the House, (says Jeff Griffin from Gov. Kitzhaber’s office).

Meanwhile, a bill in the House to restructure federal resource land management and designate land for harvests might pass the House, Griffin says, but not the Senate. Even if either passed, counties wouldn’t immediately see more money.