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News / Northwest

Timber payments to counties fall after expiration of federal subsidy

The Columbian
Published: January 16, 2015, 4:00pm

In Southwest Washington, Skamania County is one of the counties hardest hit by the expiration of federal timber payments. Late last year, county leaders developed a budget that assumed about $1.5 million from the Secure Rural Schools program, before Congress adjourned without renewing it. That money represents a sizeable chunk of Skamania County’s $9.8 million general operating budget.

If the payments aren’t renewed, the county has said, it could have to cut dozens of positions affecting numerous departments. The Stevenson-Carson School District also receives money from the timber payments program.

The Secure Rural Schools program was created in 2000 as a way to replace some of the revenue that many counties once collected from tax-generating timber harvests before their sharp decline.

Skamania County’s financial health is more dependent on timber than most. Eighty percent of the county is federally owned — most of that by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 1.3 million-acre Gifford Pinchot National 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.

In Southwest Washington, Skamania County is one of the counties hardest hit by the expiration of federal timber payments. Late last year, county leaders developed a budget that assumed about $1.5 million from the Secure Rural Schools program, before Congress adjourned without renewing it. That money represents a sizeable chunk of Skamania County's $9.8 million general operating budget.

If the payments aren't renewed, the county has said, it could have to cut dozens of positions affecting numerous departments. The Stevenson-Carson School District also receives money from the timber payments program.

The Secure Rural Schools program was created in 2000 as a way to replace some of the revenue that many counties once collected from tax-generating timber harvests before their sharp decline.

Skamania County's financial health is more dependent on timber than most. Eighty percent of the county is federally owned -- most of that by the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the 1.3 million-acre Gifford Pinchot National 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 only 2 percent of the county in private residential or commercial use, which generates regular property taxes.

That leaves only 2 percent of the county in private residential or commercial use, which generates regular property taxes.

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The Obama administration is telling governors in 41 states how much money they are losing after Congress ended subsidies paid the past 20 years to counties that contain national forestland.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that the U.S. Forest Service is sending more than $50 million to 746 timber counties in February, with Oregon and other Western states the biggest recipients. That compares to about $300 million paid out last fiscal year under the Secure Rural Schools subsidy program.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell sent letters to governors detailing how their payments would be cut.

Since 1908, the Forest Service has paid a quarter of its logging revenues to counties to be used for roads and schools. That law was enacted to win support for the newly created national forest system.

When logging was cut by 90 percent on federal forests in the Northwest to protect the spotted owl and salmon, Congress started approving the subsidies.

As logging cutbacks spread around the country to protect fish, wildlife and clean water, Sen. Ron Wyden, R-Ore., sponsored the Secure Rural Schools bill, which expanded the subsidies.

They include payments to counties in western Oregon with U.S. Bureau of Land Management timberlands, which are at a higher rate, and used largely for sheriff’s patrols and jails.

The president’s budget included a five-year renewal of the program, but it died in the last days of Congress.

Wyden could not get it attached to a must-pass appropriation in the Senate. The House attached a one-year extension to a bill ramping up logging on national forests, but that bill had no traction in the Senate and a veto threat from the White House.

The subsidy issue is expected to come up again this year.

Timber states in the West are seeing the biggest drop. Forest Service payments to Oregon counties drop from $67.9 million to $5.9 million; California, from $35.6 million to $8.7 million; Idaho, from $28.3 million to $2 million; Washington, from $21.5 million to $2.1 million; and Montana, from $21.3 million to $2 million.

Expiration of Secure Rural Schools also dries up money for search and rescue operations and conservation projects on national forests. In Oregon, some cash-strapped counties got permission to use road funds for law enforcement.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has said he has a commitment from House speaker John Boehner to try to renew Secure Rural Schools for one year sometime in the first quarter of this year. But Republicans also are expected to try again to boost logging on national forests.

Expiration of Secure Rural Schools also dries up money for search and rescue operations and conservation projects on national forests. In Oregon, some cash-strapped counties got permission to use road funds for law enforcement.

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