Skamania County commissioners have declared a “state of emergency,” decrying what they describe as mismanagement of federal forestland that they say has hamstrung the financially battered county and created extreme fire danger.
In a strongly worded resolution passed unanimously Oct. 7, the commissioners called for “immediate action” to eliminate hazardous conditions, and asked the U.S. Forest Service to coordinate a meeting to address the subject. The resolution also asked state and federal authorities to provide emergency funding for tree thinning to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
Skamania County leaders have long called for an increase to tax-generating timber harvests on the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, which used to be one of the biggest timber producers in the Northwest. With almost 90 percent of the county’s land owned by the federal and state governments, the county’s fate is determined largely by land it doesn’t control. Yet despite repeated pleas, the dire situation hasn’t improved, said Skamania County Commissioner Chris Brong.
“They’re tone deaf. They just don’t respond,” Brong said. “I have to question whether they’re even reading the materials that we’re sending them.”
The forest service received the commissioners’ resolution on Wednesday, said acting public affairs officer Diana Perez.
“We’re reviewing the resolution, and we very much value our relationship with Skamania County,” Perez said.
Eighty percent of the county is federally owned — most of that by the forest service, which manages the 1.3 million-acre Gifford Pinchot forest. Another 8 percent is owned by the state. And 10 percent of Skamania County is designated as private timberland, which generates significant tax revenue only when harvested.
That leaves 2 percent of the county in private residential or commercial use, which generates property taxes.
Those numbers could change. Just last week, county commissioners sent a letter to the forest service opposing the proposed purchase of about 3,000 acres of private timberland that was recently harvested near Mount St. Helens.
“The further reduction of private lands for property tax purposes further erodes funding for county government services, schools, and emergency services,” the commissioners wrote.
The forest service requested funding through a federal program for that sale, with the support of the current landowner, but has not been approved, Perez said. The agency has also heard support from groups who would like better public access to the High Lakes area of northwestern Skamania County, she said.
Management of national forests has changed dramatically since the 1990s. Harvests on the Gifford Pinchot forest sold 689 million board-feet of timber in 1990, before the landmark Northwest Forest Plan, spotted owl habitat and other environmental rules put much of it off-limits. In 2013, the Gifford Pinchot forest generated about 34 million board-feet of timber sales, Perez said.
Through all those changes, the forest service has operated under constraints of its own, she added.
“We’re doing the best we can with the budget we have and the rules, policies and laws that we have in place,” Perez said.
Brong said this week’s emergency resolution was passed in part to draw attention to the plight of his county. Skamania County has received money through Secure Rural Schools, a federal program established to give timber-dependent counties annual payments to make up for some of their lost revenue. But the program has wavered from year to year as Congressional renewal has been anything but routine.
Brong said local leaders don’t feel their voices are being heard. Services continue to suffer due to forces mostly out of their control.
“We want to be treated as equal partners,” Brong said.