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Support for federal timber bill dims

Fresh back from Capitol Hill, Commissioner Tony Hyde doubts federal timber plan will survive Congress

Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde returned from Capitol Hill Tuesday morning after a several-day meeting with lobbyists and legislators on county-based legislative priorities.

The main push of Hyde's visit, which tied in with the National Association of Counties' annual legislative conference, had been advocating for a House bill that would restore logging revenue in rural counties and set aside sensitive lands for conservancy.

Hyde left Tuesday with a sense the bill, in its current form, would be unlikely to survive congressional review.

'It's just my gut from being here,' Hyde said. He said he believes the concept behind the bill, which is to open select federal forests to managed logging and protect sensitive lands, such as old-growth forests, would resurface in the future.

He said there is momentum for interim funding to offset November's expiration of federal timber legislation that paid counties with federal forestland a figure based on historical timber receipts. Columbia County funds from the legislation had been phased downward from a peak of $2.4 million in 2007 to $705,000 last year.

One possibility for the interim infusing of federal funds is addition of a timber payment component in the national transportation bill, Hyde said, a concept gaining congressional momentum. 'They think they have a vehicle to get this bill through,' Hyde said.

Interim funding is a disappointing outcome, however. In addition to annual declines in the federal payment, there have been no congressional guarantees for reauthorization of timber-based federal payments, resulting in lobbying struggles each session. The payments have increasingly been out of favor with lawmakers from other states, especially considering that Oregon, and its vast holdings of federal forestland, receives the lion's share of federal dollars tied to timber offsets.

'We've just got to get off of this ride of annual or biannual reauthorization,' Hyde said.

What, exactly, the interim funding picture would look like for next year's budget cycle starting in July is unclear.

Hyde said there would undoubtedly be cuts at the county level in light of lowered revenue expectations, a trend being mirrored nationwide. He also said a 'paradigm shift' is necessary in how the county delivers services in the wake of declining revenue.

'It's probably going to be a combination of things,' Hyde said. 'It isn't going to be pretty.' Supported by Reps. Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader, the Federal Forests County Revenue, Schools and Jobs Act of 2012 had been approved by the House Natural Resources Committee.

Touted by supporters as a more sustainable way to manage timber, the bill would create a trust that would pay counties and schools 65 percent of annual revenue generated through federally approved projects.

Critics argued the bill does not respect environmental goals set down over the years, however, and some analysts said it is not possible to sell as much timber as it would take to reach funding goals outlined in the bill.

Sensitive lands such as old growth forests would be taken out of the equation entirely and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

From what remains, half would be conserved and half managed for timber sales. The trust, as the legislation had been proposed, would operate under the auspices of the Oregon Forest Practices Act, which respects both federal and state timber laws. The membership of the trust would be prescriptive, and would be appointed by the governor.

'We'll see what comes out on the other end of the sausage grinder, but it's not from a lack of input on our part,' Hyde said. 'We've finally come to a catastrophic point when we say we have to do something radically different.'