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End Of Federal Timber Payments Means Leaner Times For Oregon Counties

Over the past century, shared federal timber harvest revenues have become the backbones of Oregon county budgets.
Over the past century, shared federal timber harvest revenues have become the backbones of Oregon county budgets.

Federal timber payments to counties in the Pacific Northwest may be a thing of the past, after funding failed to make it into a Congressional spending bill this week.

For the past century, when timber was logged on federal land, the county where that land was located would get a cut of the profits. The reason: counties couldn’t collect property taxes on federal lands, yet still had to provide services there.

“The program’s been around for a very, very, very long time and the taxing system in Oregon grew up around that program being available,” says Douglas County Commissioner Susan Morgan.

The money became a significant portion of county budgets in the state, even though it was only intended to help them transition to a more stable funding model.

Morgan listed more than a dozen county divisions and programs – including the sheriff’s and district attorney’s office and the library – that are paid for in part by about $9.1 million general fund dollars from the federal aid program.

“You can go down though through the line of all the services the county provides, and safety net plays a role, and most often a major role in almost all of them,” she said.

Now the Secure Rural Schools funding has not been renewed -- putting counties in the same situation they've faced in the past before Congress eventually extended the aid program.

This time around, it's because the program was not included in a House spending bill. Unless something unexpected happens, counties won’t have that money come July 1, 2015.

In facing this situation, Douglas County is actually in a much better shape than some. Eric Schmidt with the Association of Oregon Counties says many counties saw the writing on the wall for started working on budgets that did not rely on continued federal aid.

“The impact will be fairly minimal in some counties. The services have already been cut, the people have already been laid off. We’ve already seen the impacts,” he said.

Josephine and Curry counties are not among those counties that found ways to survive without that safety net.

And without some relief, Itzen said there’s a good chance closing the jail is next on the chopping block.

For Itzen, there are a few options for the county going forward. He’s been an advocate for raising taxes to pay for basic services. But that isn’t a popular position in his rural part of the state. It’s so unpopular, he lost his reelection last month and is on his way out of office.

The other option, echoed by many at the county level, is increasing logging. But just how and whether to increase harvest rates is a difficult and much-politicized question.

Itzen is banking on another potential solution: establishing forest collaboratives. The idea is to bring local stakeholders (representative from environmental groups, the timber industry, American Indian tribes, and local, state and federal governments) together to make joint decisions about what timber should be cut.

Itzen worked to form a collaborative in Curry County. He expects money to start flowing from such efforts in the next couple years.

“We’re on our way to rectifying, to maybe dealing a little bit with the problem,” he said.

His group is planning to lobby the 2015 Oregon Legislature for money to help pay for mental health services and public safety programs in cash-strapped counties. He said the apparent end of the Secure Rural Schools program is providing a renewed urgency for action.

“I think the new year is going to bring a new look at how we do this," he said. "Wwe’re hopeful that we’ll find some solutions for 2015 that we haven’t been able to find for some time.”

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Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.