Promises, promises

By Observer Upload April 09, 2013 07:53 am

Think of it as having oil on your property and not being able to drill.

Consider the numbers: More than 48 percent of Union County and 58 percent of Wallowa County is national forest. Yet due to a reduction in timber harvest, and with jobless rates approaching 10 percent, the counties are struggling for revenue.

It’s frustrating. As Union County Commissioner Mark Davidson says, 800 million board feet of timber grows each year on the Umatilla, Malheur and Wallowa-Whitman forests, and about half of that dies every year.

Now, to make it even more frustrating, Wallowa and Union counties may have to return some Secure Rural School funding used to support road departments and schools due to across-the-board cuts in the federal government.

Admittedly, the government spending spree has to end somewhere. But promises were made. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was a safety net for rural communities slammed by the recession and collapse of the timber industry. 

Sure, property taxes could be raised to make up the funds. County sales taxes or gas taxes could be implemented. More roads could be let go back to gravel.

Sound promising? Not hardly. The special Secure Rural School fund was implemented in 2000 by Congress to compensate counties whose local economies were dependent on the timber industry. 

Today, times are even worse. Wallowa County has no mills capable of receiving saw logs, and Union County mills have cut staffing drastically. The counties have yet to recover from the loss of timber jobs, and no other industry has come in to replace them.

As Davidson says, the federal government promised when they created the Forest Service they would manage the lands for the benefit of the local community. Today, one wonders whether that promise was worth the paper it was written on.

It’s still too early to tell exactly how the refunding of money already allocated will play out. One thing is certain: If the counties refund a portion of the money they received in January, it will impact roads and schools. 

When budgets are cut, everyone across the board has to suffer, somewhere. Still, as we gaze up at all the forests surrounding our cities, we wonder about promises that were made and are, bit by bit, being broken.