Skamania County gets its moment in the timber spotlight


Most of the attention — from media and politicians — the last couple years has gone to cash-strapped timber counties in Oregon, but Washington timber counties like Skamania, Klickitat, Lewis and Grays Harbor are also in dire straits.

Skamania County Commissioner Chris Brong (who recently wrote an opinion piece in the Seattle Times about his county’s financial situation) is aware of the inequity in public attention. Here’s what Brong told the Vancouver Columbian this week:

“When you think Skamania County, think Josephine and Curry County in Oregon,” Brong said. Both historically timber-dependent counties have seen huge cuts to public services as harvest revenues and federal assistance dwindled.

“But we’re worse,” Brong said.

Skamania County, in Southwest Washington, is uniquely dependent on the U.S. Forest Service because 80 percent of the county’s land is federally owned, most of it in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

As the Columbian points out, “Another 8 percent (of Skamania’s land) is owned by the state. And 10 percent of the county is designated private timberland, which generates significant tax revenue only when harvested.”

That leaves only 2 percent of the entire county as private, regularly taxed property.

“It’s pretty precarious,” Brong said. “It’s not a situation that makes it easy for new development to come in.”

This week, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and U.S. Forest Service Cheif Tom Tidwell visted Skamania County for a roundtable discussion and forest tour. Frustation boiled over as local leaders pleaded with Tidwell to increase the timber harvest.

Though not everyone in the room agreed, Tidwell said the Northwest Forest Plan is working, even if it’s not working as well as many would like. Taking on a rewrite or revision of the plan would drain additional forest service resources, and likely result in a lengthy review or litigation, he said.

But some leaders, already facing huge service cuts under the plan, indicated they don’t feel like they have much left to lose. The plan hasn’t delivered the results it promised, they said.

“The Northwest Forest Plan was developed out of political necessity, not out of science,” said Paul Pearce of the National Forest Counties and Schools Coalition. “It was very much a political document.”

“Honestly, I would set fire to it and start over,” said Pearce, a former Skamania County commissioner.

Herrera Beutler said the feds need to increase the timber harvest to ensure Skamania County residents’ financial survival.

“It’s not just a policy decision,” Herrera Beutler said. “It’s a humanitarian decision. It’s a social justice decision.”