As some of Oregon’s southwestern counties hover near bankruptcy after the loss of federal payments in lieu of timber receipts, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) talked April 10 about a new bill designed to help those hardest-hit counties.
The bill is sponsored jointly by Walden and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader (both D-Ore.) and would create the O&C Trust to assume management responsibilities over certain revested Oregon and California Railroad Grant lands. The bill also transfers certain of the O&C grant lands to the U.S. Forest Services “to deal with the reconveyed Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant lands and other purposes. The legislation would benefit 18 counties which contain some of the O&C lands.
“These communities have suffered deeply,” Walden said in a press conference April 10. “The counties are on the brink of bankruptcy, and many families are on the brink of bankruptcy. They’ve lost a lot of mill infrastructure and more is on the line. Meanwhile, catastrophic wildfires are devastating our [poorly managed] forests.”
Walden said the bill would allow the forests of the grant lands to be managed properly, employing good land stewardship.
“What Peter and Kurt and I worked on represents forward progress to actually have meaningful management of our forest resources in a way that generates revenue to fund basic local services, jobs for families and, I would argue, result in healthier habitat,” Walden said. “Those are our goals.”
Generally speaking, the 18 O&C counties have been harder hit by the absence of federal payments because they received additional payments for those grant lands.
In some cases, those extra payments funded a significant portion of county government, allowing those counties to maintain much lower county government tax rates than they would have to do otherwise to fund services. Some counties have tried to replace those revenues by bringing tax levies before voters, but have been unable to gain voter approval for the increases. As a result, the lost revenues have bitten deeply into the counties’ ability to provide basic services.
Counties not receiving extra O&C payments, like Wasco County, also received federal payments in lieu of timber receipts after Northern spotted owl protection constrained timber harvest on federal land. Those funds were dedicated primarily to road departments. Now those counties must find ways to maintain roads after revenue has been lost.
Washington Republican Congressman Doc Hastings is working on a much broader timber bill designed to improve management on designated timberland across the United States, and possibly provide revenues for other counties that received federal in-lieu payments.
The challenges to getting the timber bills approved are large, Walden said. Most of the hardest hit states are in the West where populations are smaller. Western legislators must persuade their cohorts from the East to approve the bills.
Eastern states are more densely populated, and therefore have more legislators compared to the western states. They also have less land under federal ownership. Walden noted that few eastern states have more than 10 percent federal ownership. By contrast, more than half of Oregon’s land area is in federal ownership.