Will Congress help timber-dependent counties?


There’s a financial crisis afoot across the Pacific Northwest, but unfortunately a lot of people probably don’t know about it because it affects many of our rural counties. For years the federal government has given a share of the federal timber harvest to timber-dependent counties in Washington and Oregon as a way to make up for the loss of revenue from a timber industry hit hard by lawsuits and the spotted owl. But those timber payments are set to end Sept. 30.

This will imperil the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people across the Northwest. Skamania County in Southwest Washington says its budget will be cut in half, and Curry County in southern Oregon may dissolve completely. With no government to provide any services, including police and fire, lives will be put at risk.

Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington are attempting the fix the problem. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) has proposed a plan to divide federal forestland into two trusts that would provide money for the county, a plan supported by the Eugene Register-Guard and not surprisingly, opposed by short-sighted environmental groups. Lawmakers have proposed other plans, but what they have in common is federal legislation moves very slowly and it’s unclear whether any solution will arrive in time to help the rural counties for this year’s budgets.

The Wallowa County Chieftain in northeast Oregon isn’t optimistic.

Too easily overlooked or tossed aside in any federal budget-dealing are the needs of rural Western communities, whose small populations can hardly raise a clamor loud enough to be heard over the Eastern-dominated din in the nation’s halls of power.

This is why it’s so critical that something be done. Faye Stewart, a commissioner in Lane County, Ore., wrote in the Register-Guard this week that Congress can reach a solution that will provide “both a healthy environment for all things wild while also ensuring that our communities have every opportunity to thrive.”

Stewart also criticized Oregon Wild, the environmental group that opposes any plan that would allow a private company to harvest federal timberland, even if most of the revenue would go to keep rural counties afloat.

It is ironic that (Oregon Wild’s) leaders believe their work will “ensure that Oregon remains a special place to raise a family,” when the position they take would result in the further destruction of our families by reducing revenues for Oregon schools, public safety and public health, and the continued demise of family-wage jobs in our local communities.

To illustrate the dire straits of timber-dependent counties, take a look at Washington’s Skamania County. According to the Vancouver Columbian, county commissioners have been trying for years to wean the county off the federal timber payments, but have been “fraught with constant challenges.”

Those include acquiring the Forest Service’s former Wind River Nursery, which the county has attempted without much success to turn into a business park; a proposed destination resort on the site of the closed Broughton lumber mill, which is tied up in legal challenges; and a proposed wind farm just outside the boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which is awaiting approval by state regulators but faces opposition from environmental groups.

The county has spent the money it set aside in two trust funds, said (Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce). Its $4.5 million salary and wage reserve was drawn down to cover salary and wages for county employees as federal payments dwindled. Its capital reserve was spent to remodel two county buildings. “We had buildings that were falling down,” he said. “We knew eventually we would not have that kind of money for maintenance and to keep those buildings going.”

Pearce has made repeated trips to Congress to lobby for reauthorization of the county payments program and for more timber production on federal lands.

“I would gladly trade these dollars for the jobs we once had on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest,” he said.