Lawmakers remain confident of timber counties fix 

Members of Oregon's congressional delegation recognize they face an uphill battle on legislation to forge short- and long-term solutions to the fiscal problems facing timber counties, but they said Thursday they remain confident they can pull it off once again.

Democrat Rep. Peter DeFazio and Republican Rep. Greg Walden met in Grants Pass with officials from timber counties facing fiscal crises since expiration last year of a federal safety net known as the Secure Rural Schools Act.

At a press conference afterward, DeFazio likened their efforts to a silent movie, where the heroine is saved at the last minute from being run over by a train.

"It's kind of been like "The Perils of Pauline" on the railroad tracks," DeFazio said. "We are determined this time to get the ropes off and get her off the tracks and not put her back on the tracks."

Walden said they have delivered on a series of bailouts for timber counties in the past, but the other past renewals were attached to must-pass legislation, such as the 2008 bank bail-out.

"We've never been on our own," Walden said. He added he doubted members of Congress would stand by and let counties, "go broke and have that on their resume."

Time is running out for timber counties in Oregon. Curry County could be insolvent by June. Neighboring Josephine County could follow soon after. Others face sharp spending cuts, particularly in law enforcement.

Congress has enacted a variety of safety nets since the spotted owl and salmon forced cutbacks in logging on federal lands in 1994, but the Secure Rural Schools Act expired last year, and political prospects for renewing it appear difficult at best in a Congress split over partisan differences and faced with tough spending choices.

Since 2000 the act has paid out $3 billion to 700 counties in 41 states to make up for declining federal logging revenues. Oregon got the most, with $108 million going to 33 of its 36 counties in fiscal 2010. California got $48 million, Washington $31 million, and Idaho $31 million.

The counties getting the most money have some of the lowest tax rates in the state, but property tax limits make it tough to increase revenues, even if voters would approve them. Faced with a series of last-minute resurrections of federal safety nets, voters have consistently turned down tax increases.

Oregon members of Congress are pushing a two-pronged solution. In the Senate, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wants to temporarily extend federal safety net payments to timber counties while a long-term solution is worked out. In the House, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., is working on legislation to ease environmental rules to allow more logging on national forests. Though each could pass the chamber it starts in, each faces tough prospects in the other.

As part of Hastings' bill, DeFazio, Walden and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., are pressing to take the 2.6 million acres of so-called O&C lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and splitting them in two. Half would go to a trust where a board of directors would manage them for maximum sustainable timber production and revenue for the 18 O&C counties. Half would be managed to conserve fish and wildlife.

The plan has won strong support from the timber industry and counties hungry for more logs and logging revenues.

Jennifer and Link Phillippi, owners of the last sawmill in Josephine County, said they were the most optimistic for the future of logging on public lands since the 1990s.

"We could double our sales, no problem," she said. "Our problem is we don't have the logs."

But conservation groups are wary. Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild, warned that none of the details of the O&C lands proposal have come to light, the public has been left out of the process, and logging would have to increase 500 percent to produce the revenue timber counties are looking for.

"There is not a logging solution to this unless we are willing to clearcut everything and then in 10 years all we will have is mudslides and polluted rivers and we'll be wondering what we're going to do next," he said.

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