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KO of timber bill takes the wind out of Western sails

We can't understand Greg Walden's role in not helping timeber-dependent counties

Oregon's congressional representatives, and especially U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, steered this state's rural counties toward deeper economic pain last week by monkey-wrenching the so-called timber payments bill that would have maintained services in Clackamas County and other counties across the state. Congress refused to support the $250 million timber payments bill championed by Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. The bill sought to compensate Western counties for the loss of federal timber receipts.

We can understand why some representatives from the other side of the country opposed the bill, which at first blush might look like Western pork.

They do not realize that Oregonians and Westerners in general pay a heavy fiscal price when it comes to preserving forestlands for the benefit of the entire country.

What we cannot understand is why Congressman Greg Walden, R-Oregon, who portrays himself as a champion of timber-dependent communities, betrayed his fellow Oregonians on the issue and, ultimately, sided with oil companies by refusing to tap into royalties from offshore gas and oil leases to pay for the rural county finance program.

Most of the money goes to Oregon and five other Western states -Idaho, California, Washington, Montana and Alaska - although Mississippi, Arkansas and other states in the south also receive payments.

Every agency and program in the 33 Oregon counties that was depending passage of DeFazio's bill is well aware of the stakes. In many of these counties, everybody, from the fair and library boards to the sheriff's and road departments, knew that failure of Congress to pass the timber payments bill would necessitate deep budget cuts.

Adding insult to injury, the Walden crowd didn't have the decency to kill the timber payments bill until after most of the counties had already gone through the agonizing and time-consuming exercise of preparing their fiscal 2008-09 budgets.

As a result, municipalities from one end of the state to the other will have to go through their deliberations again, with substantially fewer resources than before - and for most there weren't a lot to go around the first time. It will be a gut-wrenching process to say the least for many areas in Oregon.

It's hard to say what is more shameful - that Walden sold the citizens of Oregon down the river rather than cut even slightly into the profits of oil companies, or that they are OK with dumping billions into a lost cause in Iraq while the people back home are struggling like never before to pay their mortgages and skyrocketing prices for gas and groceries.

For McCain, it probably doesn't matter what the Republicans do to Oregon. The McCain campaign has likely written off Oregon, which voted heavily for Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.

For Sen. Gordon Smith the timber payments fiasco is a different matter. Smith, a self-proclaimed champion of timber-dependent communities, may become the biggest casualty over this issue at the polls next fall.

By failing to effectively weigh in on timber payments, Smith forfeited a golden opportunity to be a hero and relinquished it to his Democratic rival, Sen. Ron Wyden, who has crafted a timber payments amendment of his own and attached it to the president's military spending bill. Even if this maneuver doesn't work, Wyden can come back to Oregon and truthfully say that he fought the good fight for rural counties.

Going forward, the real challenge for our Western communities and their leaders is crafting a permanent solution to the loss of federal timber receipts. Certainly, rural county commissioners must come to grips with the reality of a new economy in which timber no longer pays the bills, and they must plan and budget accordingly.

At the same time, while these communities throughout the West are getting over their addiction to timber dollars, congressional leaders owe it to the people to make sure the transition takes place gradually and predictably in order to minimize the damage and the pain these communities will experience during the transition. The annual fight and all the uncertainty that goes with it is painful, unnecessary and unacceptable.