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Congress extends timber payments

For one year only

   In a flurry of press releases last week, Oregon's congressmen applauded the federal passage of a one-year extension of the county payments to rural timber counties.
   The funding, which was included in the federal transportation bill, will provide $346 million to 700 rural counties in 41 states.
   With $102 million of the $346 million going to 33 of Oregon's 36 counties, Oregon will get the lion's share of the payments that provide assistance to states and rural counties that have lost revenue from timber harvest on federal lands.
   The author of the original county payments legislation, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, said that the $100 million for Oregon counties to "help stem the tide of layoffs, cutbacks and reductions in vital services in hard-hit rural communities could simply not have come at a better time."
   "This is the fourth time since I wrote the original county payments law in 2000 that Congress has come down on the side of schools, roads and law enforcement in rural, natural-resource dependent counties," he noted.
   The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act -- commonly known as the county payments law -- passed the U.S. Senate March 14 by a vote of 82 to 16.
   "Maintaining the federal government's historic obligation to rural Oregon and to rural America has always been my top legislative priority," Wyden added. "The conference committee decision to include this extension means that this vital program will continue."
   Last month, Wyden led 25 senators in sending a letter to conference committee members to ensure that "the lifeline for rural communities would remain in the final legislation."
   U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, of Hood River, helped secure passage of the extension in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday.
   "The House today gave a lifeline to rural counties to keep essential services like law enforcement and schools up and running," said Walden in a press release on Friday. "The entire delegation worked together to get this done for Oregon."
   "We can't rest now though -- the clock is ticking," he continued. "We will continue our bipartisan work on a long-term solution to create jobs in the woods to make our federally-forested communities self-reliant once more for the long term."
   "With this one-year funding approved," Walden said, "we can now focus our full attention on passing our Oregon forestry reform plan with Reps. (Peter) DeFazio and (Kurt) Schrader and the Natural Resources Committee."
   Even though the payments have been reduced slightly, it will make a substantial difference to roads in Jefferson County, where the payment has traditionally provided support for the roads department. The county received under $360,000 for 2011-12, but that will be reduced by 5 percent under the extension.
   "They say to plan on getting about 95 percent of what you got last year, so about $340,000," said Jeff Rasmussen, county administrator. "This year we got $357,404."
   "We were hoping for it, but we did not budget for it," said Rasmussen, who indicated that the County Commission will decide how the funding will be used, "but I think we would do a mixture of asphalt and road oil on county roads and shore up equipment reserves."
   "It's a good thing, because it's dedicated funding that can only be used on roads," said Rasmussen. "We're one of the counties that do not use the money for law enforcement -- forest patrols."
   In preparation for the anticipated loss of the funding, Mike McHaney, director of the Jefferson County Public Works Department, didn't fill a vacancy in the road department and planned on laying less asphalt.
   "It's great, but we can't rely on it," said McHaney, after learning of the extension. "We'll restore the funding levels we had that we had to cut."
   "Really, we have to find ways to fund the road department and not be relying on this," said McHaney, who oversees a total budget of $3,115,498, with 17 full-time employees.
   The funding from the county payments represents 16 percent of the total revenue for the department, which is estimated at $1,769,048.
   "This news is a huge relief for Oregon's struggling timber counties," commented Sen. Jeff Merkley in a statement issued last week. "These funds are desperately needed to keep teachers in our schools, first responders on the job, and cops on the beat."
   "But this funding is just a short-term reprieve," he cautioned. "We need to figure out a long-term solution that establishes a sustainable timber harvest, creating jobs in the woods and jobs in the mills, while improving healthy forest ecosystems."