Photo by Ellen Miller

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Federal programs: Steadfast support for Oregon's rural communities

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture responds to critical Oregonian Editorial

By Tom Vilsack
Published: Wednesday, October 05, 2011, 4:30 AM
A recent editorial in The Oregonian described my vision of the future of Oregon's rural forested communities to be bleak. It also indicated that I did not fully understand or appreciate the importance of renewing the Secure Rural Schools Act. The reporting in this editorial could not be further from my actual feelings: I have high hopes for Oregon's rural counties. And I provided support for those communities by calling for the Secure Rural Schools Act to be fully funded in the president's 2012 budget.

The argument for supporting rural communities surrounded by public forests has never changed in my mind, nor do I expect it to, even in these difficult economic times. The federal payments provided to local counties through the Secure Rural Schools Act have played an important role in supporting public schools and maintaining roads. They have helped provide key public safety services as well as libraries. The kind of support this program provides is critical.

But as Congress continues to look for ways to make spending cuts, it is only realistic to recognize that critical funding for the nation's rural communities -- in Oregon and elsewhere -- will be at risk. As I often remind audiences and lawmakers, in these difficult fiscal times, we must remember we cannot only cut our way out of a deficit, we must also grow our way out. To do that we have to be smarter and more determined than ever before to look for creative ways to generate economic growth and job creation.

Since 2009, the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have focused on new approaches to improve economic opportunity in rural America. And today, we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that the needs of Oregon's rural communities will still be met. Yes, the timber industry has been ailing, but we have taken steps to reinvigorate it and are seeing returns on our investments. In the past two years we have not only stopped the decades-long decline in the Forest Service timber sale program, but have reversed it, actually increasing the amount of timber being sold in Oregon and nationwide. Further, we are pursuing a number of initiatives, including stewardship contracting and landscape-scale forest restoration, that will allow the Forest Service to continue to increase timber production in coming years.

We have also invested millions of dollars to partner state, local and private organizations to improve landscapes while creating jobs in rural America. Already this investment has created and maintained more than 1,550 jobs and generated nearly $59 million in labor income in nine states across the country. In Oregon, the Deschutes Skyline Project has received $1.2 million to restore forest ecosystems and create jobs for the local community.

Despite the cynicism apparent in The Oregonian's editorial, the draft Forest Service planning rule is not the same old Washington, D.C., song and dance. USDA and this administration have repeatedly made it clear that we recognize the reliance of rural communities on sharing receipts from Forest Service land, while also recognizing the need to manage those lands more effectively to stimulate local economies. That's why when developing the proposed planning rule, we relied heavily on the input of the communities that will be impacted to ensure we are working together to create economic opportunities for rural areas in addition to allowing land management projects that improve the health of forests and public safety.

So, while The Oregonian called my outlook bleak, I see it more as cautiously optimistic. Every American knows he can rely on the resiliency and collaborative spirit of rural communities. Healthy, thriving forests and healthy, thriving communities go hand in hand. That's why it's incumbent on all of us to work together to find traditional and nontraditional ways to ensure that rural America remains strong.

Tom Vilsack is U.S. secretary of agriculture.

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