Clear-cut Solution to County Funding?
Description of the legislative proposal to clear-cut public lands to prop-up county budgets, and alternatives being advanced by the conservation community and allies.
County funding and public lands
For decades, counties with Oregon and California Railroad revested lands, known as O&C lands , received funding based on the amount of timber harvested from these federal public lands. Over time, unsustainable logging practices led to the degradation of fish and wildlife habitat and water quality throughout the region.
Thankfully, widely supported environmental laws were passed in the 1970s to protect clean water, endangered species, and the general health of our nation's environment. The Northwest Forest Plan followed in the early 1990s, and once instituted slowed down the unsustainable and damaging logging of old-growth forests, but also resulted in a decrease in funding for county services.
Recognizing the need for bridge funding to a day when rural economies wouldn't be as reliant upon the boom and bust timber industry, the federal government provided support provided funding for these counties through programs like Payments in Lieu of
Taxes and the Secure
and Community Self Determination Act (SRS), first passed in 2000. The SRS has since expired, and without re-authorization in Congress county funding will once again be linked to logging of public lands.
County governments all across western Oregon are now facing a growing crisis over funding for essential services. Communities with a large stake in the timber industry are suffering from a domestic housing downturn, an increase in log exports (taking jobs and raw materials overseas), and an inability to tax private timber lands at appropriate rates or federal lands at all. Deep cuts have already been made in budgets for law enforcement, education, road maintenance, public health and other critical areas, with even deeper cuts likely in coming years.
It is vital a more reliable, long-term source of funding be found to provide for vital government services, without jeopardizing the conservation of public lands.
Logging not a solution
A variety of proposals to address this problem have been offered in recent months and years, ranging from plans to re-couple county funding to logging revenues from federal public lands, to selling off or otherwise privatizing federal public lands through "trusts" in order to raise funds. These alternative proposals have significant problems – socially, politically, and environmentally.
Proposals in Congress to dramatically increase logging of public lands to make up for SRS funding put clean water, fish, wildlife, and our quality of life at risk (for example, take Doc Hasting's H.R. 4019 bill). To replace SRS funding through this means would require:
- current logging levels to increase by at least 400%
- logging remaining old-growth forests
- federal budgets for land management agencies to increase by at least 300%, and
- a housing market rebound and timber prices to increase by 400%
These requirements are not realistically possible. The logging required would need to eliminate environmental safeguards like the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act protections. Americans today have little desire to see a return to extensive clear-cutting, particularly of old-growth forests.
Rep. DeFazio's timber trust proposal
For months, Congressman Peter DeFazio, who represents much of western Oregon, has been talking about and promoting a concept that would increase logging on a million acres of BLM O&C lands to prop-up county funding.
The proposal, developed along with Reps. Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden, was released early in 2012. The draft legislation would be a major step backwards for conservation, sacrificing clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and quality of life for many rural residents.
Learn much more about this proposal here.
Shared responsibility alternative
Instead of attempting to solve the county payments crisis by liquidating public lands through risky logging schemes, a long-term solution to county funding needs to include contributions from federal, state, and county governments.
The first thing that must be done is to reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools Act for short-term relief for counties. At the same time, changes at the Federal, state and local government levels need to be set in motion so that logging corporations and others share fairly in solving the county funding issue. The burden cannot be just on the federal treasury and the federal estate.
Conservation groups are proposing a "shared responsibility" plan for keeping county governments in business while not sacrificing clean drinking water, salmon and wildlife habitat, and quality of life for Oregonians.
- Transferring most of the 2.6 million acres of BLM forest lands in western Oregon to the U.S. Forest Service could result in tens of millions of dollars in administrative savings and efficiencies, while better managing these lands as a whole landscape for conservation and restoration.
- Record numbers of raw logs are being exported to China, enriching logging corporations while they pay incredibly low taxes. Reform of the very low state timber excise tax would make these corporations pay their fair share to help struggling local governments and communities.
- And tax reform at the county level, where we see some of the lowest property taxes in the nation, could help generate revenue.
Download the full Shared Responsibility Proposal to learn more.