Rural Oregon counties have an unrelenting dark cloud hanging overhead in the threat of the loss of federal timber payments.
The latest timber payment extension is set to expire Sept. 30. Should it occur, the already financially hobbled Columbia County government would have to trim an additional $840,000 from its revenue portfolio. At its peak, payments to the county totalled $2.4 million annually, a figure that has been whittled down over the last four years.
Thus the Columbia County Board of Commissioners has been hesitant to yield to union negotiators who want to dip deeper into the county's contingency fund to make up a budget shortfall, which has resulted in some county employees being forced to take 26 unpaid furlough days in the 2011-12 budget year.
Without reauthorization, the county finances would be even further compromised, meaning more jobs losses and less services in all areas, including law enforcement and roads.
The uncertainty factor regarding timber payments must be removed, and Oregon's stagnant economy rejuvenated, by a real change in federal policy that opens more federal forestland to timber harvests. Remember: The timber payments, when established 11 years ago, were intended only as a stop-gap measure until a permanent forest plan could be implemented. Legal gridlock has precluded such a plan, resulting in the continued necessity for the payments.
There is a plan cultivated within the Association of O and C Lands that has gained traction among some influential Oregon lawmakers. It calls for establishing two trusts - one for conservation, one for sale to private timber companies - on 2.4 million acres of federal forestland in Oregon.
Half of the land, including old growth stands and environmentally sensitive lands, would be locked away and untouched in the conservation trust. The other half is composed of previously cutover or burned lands that would be sold to private logging companies for harvest, which in turn would create jobs and revenue for struggling rural communities.
There have been extensive white papers produced on the history and management of Oregon's federal timberland. The documenation ranges from the O and C lands to the rise of the Clinton administration's Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000 that established the current payment system. It all leads to the indisputable conclusion Oregon counties are entitled to payment in lieu of the taxes these publicly held lands would produce if they were instead privately owned.
But as history's lessons fade regarding century-old pledges to provide payments, and the political climate in Washington, D.C., trends toward eliminating anything that gives off the faint whiff of a subsidy, an alternative solution is in order.
It is, of course, critical federal forestland sold for timber purposes is properly managed. We're not suggesting a return to the rampant and destructive timber practices of the 1980s that let to habitat destruction for endangered species such as the Western spotted owl.
But today jobs and the Oregon economy are equally endangered, and the absence of jobs has in many cases led to the destruction of family and home - habitat that must also be protected and cherished.
To ensure the long-term fiscal health of Oregon's rural communities, we would like to join the chorus of informed voices clamoring for a change to the present system. In the short-term, fund the timber payment. But a long-term plan, one that includes increased, sustainable harvests of our most abundant renewable resource, is paramount for Oregon's future.