Continue payments to counties

By Observer editorial June 05, 2012 12:59 pm
The U.S. government made a commitment years ago to provide funding for Oregon counties crippled by logging restrictions in federally-managed forests and it is imperative for Congress to approve a bill that will continue that funding.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Portland), who met with The Observer’s editorial board last week, said he and the rest of Oregon’s congressional delegation will do everything in their power to keep those dollars flowing to counties in Northeast Oregon.

Merkley said he and colleagues, including Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Portland) and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), are fighting tooth and nail for an extension of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act.

The bill, also known as the county payments bill, is due to sunset. If that happens, timber-dependent counties will lose large chunks of federal revenue. 

Union County, for example, would lose $654,000 of funding for roads this year if the bill is not renewed.

Merkley said he and others have managed to get an amendment extending county payments into the federal transportation bill now being considered for passage.

But even if the extension is passed and signed into law by President Obama, it will only extend the county payments for another year.

Merkley said it has become increasingly difficult to get others in Congress, especially those from states without federal forests, to continue subsidizing
counties dependent on timber.

What is really necessary is an overhaul of federal forest management policies that will allow more logging in counties where it is critical to the local economy.

Merkley said federal government policies on
timber harvest and forest health need to change so that they create more jobs and Northeast Oregon counties can benefit economically.

“The hope is we will have a different framework for the future,” Merkley told The Observer editorial board. “Failure to have a sustainable harvest plan is good if you like diseased forests.”

Well said.

Without a sustainable harvest plan, forests can be ravaged by disease or devastating wildfires fueled by wood that could have been harvested.

More sensible management of forests such as the Wallowa-Whitman that allow for more logging is necessary for the health of our forests.

In the meantime, the Secure Rural School payments program could be modeled after PILT (payment in lieu of taxes), which Northeast Oregon counties receive annually from the Bureau of Land Management in lieu of property tax on federal land. 

A payment from the U.S. Forest Service that worked more like PILT would not be subject to the whim of Congress, lumber markets or environmentalists, and would actually pay counties for the value of the federal ground instead of tying it to timber harvests.