Skamania County braces for end of timber payments

County could lose half its operating budget; Hastings bill wants national forests to generate revenue

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With the Sept. 30 expiration of a federal program that provides payments to timber-dependent counties, Skamania County says it faces a “draconian” revenue shortfall next year that will strip as much as $6 million from its $13 million operating budget.

A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, set for a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, would address Skamania County’s plight by requiring national forests to meet annual revenue goals for counties through “active management” projects such as logging and grazing.

Hastings, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that his legislation “takes action to address the decades-long problem of declining federal timber sales and the need to restore this stable source of revenue to rural communities and schools.”

Under his National Forest County Revenue, Schools and Jobs Act of 2011, each national forest would be assigned an annual revenue requirement based on an average of annual timber sale receipts during the years 1980 to 2000. Revenue from projects on dedicated national forest land would go into a trust fund to provide a dependable source of revenue for rural counties that currently depend on the expiring Secure Rural Schools Act.

Of the total amount deposited in the trust fund, 75 percent would be shared with counties, 20 percent would go to the Forest Service, and 5 percent would go to the federal Treasury.

The bill authorizes a transition period during which the federal government would continue making payments to counties and schools while the Forest Service begins the process of identifying and implementing trust projects. It would pay a bonus of up to 1 percent of salary to Forest Service employees who exceed minimum revenue targets.

A similar idea has been floated by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. They have proposed offering long-term leases on up to 1 million acres of federal timber land in Western Oregon managed by the Bureau of Land Management to provide funding for Western Oregon counties if Congress fails to extend the Secure Rural Schools Act.

Conservationists say such proposals amount to privatization of public land that belongs to all Americans — land that is managed to provide many benefits besides timber sale revenue, including clean drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat and recreation.

“While conservationists long have supported the county payments program and efforts to diversify the economies of logging-dependent communities, we must oppose strongly privatizing America’s public lands,” wrote Steve Pedery, conservation director of the Portland-based environmental group Oregon Wild, in a recent opinion piece published in the Eugene Register-Guard.

Federal forests “are not a private bank account to be liquidated to solve a Western Oregon political problem,” Pedery wrote. “Worse, doing so could open a Pandora’s box of copy-cat proposals around the country. In the current political climate, we could see parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments and other special places also put up on the privatization chopping block.”

‘Will be opposition’

It’s not clear whether such proposals will win broad support in Congress.

“I think there is absolutely no question there will be opposition, even within the timber counties themselves,” said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce.

But Pearce, who supports Hastings’ bill, says something like it must be enacted if his county is to continue providing police, planning, public health, mental health and senior services in 2012.

“Our federal payment next year will be $1.8 million,” a sharp drop from the county’s 2010 payment of $7 million and from its average annual payment of $5.5 million since 2000, Pearce said.

The county’s four school districts, which share a payment equal to the county payment, will see the same drop in federal revenue.

In addition, the county will see funding for forest “enhancement” projects drop from nearly $1 million to about $350,000 next year. That money goes to create jobs in the woods through stream restoration, endangered tree removal, trail work and other projects.

Federal payments to counties began ramping down by 10 percent annually in 2008. Making matters worse, the county will receive just $75,000 in timber revenue from state trust lands this year, the lowest amount in more than 25 years.

Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000 to provide transition payments to counties affected by sharp declines in federal timber sales. Those declines were due in part to measures taken to protect old-growth forest habitat for the threatened marbled murrelet and northern spotted owl.

The intent of the legislation was to give counties time to make the transition to other sources of revenue. But Skamania and many other counties in the Pacific Northwest have failed to find a replacement for forest payments. Congress extended the program through 2011, but payments will dry up after 2012 without new legislation.

Diversification stalls

In a press release this month, Skamania County commissioners listed the efforts the county has made to diversify its economy, efforts they said have been “fraught with constant challenges.”

Those include acquiring the Forest Service’s former Wind River Nursery, which the county has attempted without much success to turn into a business park; a proposed destination resort on the site of the closed Broughton lumber mill, which is tied up in legal challenges; and a proposed wind farm just outside the boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which is awaiting approval by state regulators but faces opposition from environmental groups.

The county has spent the money it set aside in two trust funds, Pearce said. Its $4.5 million salary and wage reserve was drawn down to cover salary and wages for county employees as federal payments dwindled. Its capital reserve was spent to remodel two county buildings. “We had buildings that were falling down,” he said. “We knew eventually we would not have that kind of money for maintenance and to keep those buildings going.”

Pearce has made repeated trips to Congress to lobby for reauthorization of the county payments program and for more timber production on federal lands.

“I would gladly trade these dollars for the jobs we once had on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest,” he said.