Timber counties still searching for answers


In the short term, there are some positive signs in timber country. The Wall Street Journal just published a story, “Logging Towns Are on a Roll,” that highlighted how rising lumber prices are leading to a resurgence in sawmills and rural employment, especially in the West.

The Eugene, Ore., area is typical. Swanson Group Inc. says it has rehired 200 people out of the 720 positions it eliminated at its area mills during the recession and expects to add an additional 50 by late spring, bringing total employment to 800 compared with 550 in 2009. Another big producer, Seneca Sawmill Co., says it has restored hours for its 375 employees in the Eugene area, who now are almost back to the five-day work weeks they had before the recession.

But the upswing can go only so far. There are deeper, long-term problems in Western timber counties that will need federal intervention to fix.

The same Oregon county featured in the Wall Street Journal story – Lane County – is asking voters May 21 to approve a property tax increase to fund public safety, largely because of the end of federal timber payments. Two other counties in the Southwest quadrant of Oregon – Curry and Josephine – are asking their voters to approve similar tax increases for the same reason.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, just took over as the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a powerful post that Wyden pledges he will use to help rural counties. As we’ve written about before, timber counties in the Northwest have been looking for a solution on the timber-payment issue for years.

Wyden says he wants to renew the timber payments for one or two years while Congress comes up with a permanent funding solution, which could include widening the payments to rural counties affected by other natural resource issues.

On its face, such a proposal would appear to be welcome news to timber counties, but in fact, the issue is much more complicated than just restarting the timber payments. Most rural leaders recognize they need lasting solutions to their economic problems.

Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare, for one, is not happy with (Sen. Wyden’s) idea. He says Wyden’s pledge to renew the payments makes it likely voters will turn down a tax increase on the May ballot to restore deep cuts to law enforcement. Hare adds he would rather have Congress focus on producing more timber from federal lands, such as the plan to increase logging on what are known as the O&C lands in Western Oregon.

“The senator is, frankly, out of touch with what is going on here on the ground and with what we need,” said Hare.

The World newspaper’s editorial board in Coos Bay, Ore., said that while “rural Oregon’s sinking counties will take anything Congress wants to give,” Wyden’s idea is wrongheaded.

First, Wyden’s plan would keep counties on the dole, perpetual wards of a fickle Congress. What counties really need is a reliable income stream — the kind they had for many decades, before the curtailment of logging dried up timber harvest revenue.

Second, dangling the uncertain promise of a federal bailout could torpedo  counties that ask voters for property tax increases.

Third, subsidizing county budgets does virtually nothing to strengthen local economies. Worse, it diverts attention from the more important goal: a timber policy that allows a rational, sustainable timber harvest, boosting rural communities while generating revenue for counties.

To his credit, Sen. Wyden told a group of constituents in Medford last week that he also supports an increase in the federal timber harvest in Southwest Oregon. But he has to yet link a harvest increase to his plan on timber payments, and timber counties are still searching for a long-term solution.

In answer to a question from the audience, Wyden indicated he would reach out to all sides in the debate over how much federal timberland should be harvested. That includes Gov. John Kitzhaber’s forest task force, he noted.

“We all are trying to find common ground between timber folks and environmental folks — that’s really the coin of the realm,” he said.

He observed it can be done, noting he was able to create a bill for the east side of the Cascades after working with diverse factions.

“Trust is the key,” he said.