GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A surprise extension of a federal subsidy to timber counties will prevent jail shutdowns and keep deputies on the road, but local Oregon officials say the money is a fraction of what they need, and in one cash-strapped county the infusion has sparked fears that it could do more harm than good.
The federal payout will bring about $100 million to the state. Some has been earmarked for schools, some has been set aside for roads, and for parts of western Oregon, some is available for law enforcement. By comparison, the state got about $250 million in timber funds in 2008.
The gap has prompted timber county officials to call for increased logging to bring in more jobs and tax revenue, despite environmental concerns that led to the current restriction.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has managed to fund the subsidy since 2000 as a safety net for timber counties across the nation after logging on national forests was dramatically decreased to protect fish, wildlife and clean water. This year he tacked the one-year extension of his Secure Rural Schools Act onto a bill to save the nation’s helium reserve.
Wyden said in a statement late last month that the subsidy helps timber counties while Congress works on a long-term solution that gives rural counties stable funding and protects the environment.
But not everyone is excited about the payout.
“While the money may help us keep patrols on the road, it is not a sustainable plan,” said Curry County Sheriff John Bishop.
In Curry County, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, voters are considering whether to approve a tax increase at the ballot next month, and Sheriff John Bishop says the short-term funds could doom the plan.
“Individuals will think, `Well, you got your money, so I’m not going to vote for anything,” he said.
Meanwhile, timber counties in southwestern Oregon are hoping that Wyden can engineer enactment of legislation to increase logging on the O&C lands — federally-owned forest lands set aside for the economic benefit of 18 western counties in the state. A bill addressing that issue has passed the U.S. House but has earned a veto threat from the Obama administration.
Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken also says the temporary funding is not enough. He and other commissioners want federal officials to allow more logging on national forests, saying it would create more jobs as well boost county revenues.
Conservationist activist Andy Kerr says that Oregon timber jobs have declined 45 percent since 1995, while milling capacity has increased 24 percent.
Lane County passed a tax increase to fund the most essential parts of law enforcement, but a similar measure in Curry County narrowly failed.
The subsidy extension brings in $1 million for Curry County, most of which will go to law enforcement. Commissioners say that’s not enough and have put a $3.2 million funding measure on the November ballot.
“We keep kicking the can down the road,” Bishop said, calling for more logging.
“Why don’t we put people back to work in the woods and do some good?”