The future of four counties may depend on a bipartisan plan to restore logging
Oregon faces a number of challenges in 2012, but perhaps none as great as the one threatening the solvency of four timber-dependent counties. If nothing is done, Curry, Coos, Klamath and Lane counties will slip into bankruptcy by the end of the year.
There is little the counties can do beyond raising taxes, which is unlikely to pass muster with voters. The state cannot help because its budget has been stripped to the bone as a result of the recession.
That leaves Congress, and a bipartisan proposal from three Oregon congressmen that offers real hope for a long-term fix — if enough lawmakers can be convinced to go along.
The roots of this crisis — and the solution offered by Reps. Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader — lie in the woods.
For generations, timber harvested from federal forests employed thousands of Oregonians and the proceeds from the sale of that timber were shared with Oregon counties. When timber harvests plunged in the 1990s because of environmental restrictions and policy changes, Congress made up for much of the lost revenue with direct payments to the counties starting in 2000.
Those payments were always intended to be temporary. They were renewed twice, at lower levels each time. The last payments came in 2011.
A succession of Jackson County commissioners recognized the need to prepare for the loss of this money, and built up sizable reserves through belt-tightening and reductions in services. Not all counties showed the same foresight.
Now the day of reckoning that had been forestalled for so long is finally coming to pass. Curry County expects to run out of money by the summer, with the other three "crisis counties" not far behind.
Details of the Oregon congressmen's proposal have not yet been revealed. But in broad terms, their plan calls for increased timber harvests on public land that has been logged before, managed by a public board in trust for the counties, which would get a steady revenue stream to keep them functioning and new jobs for their struggling economies.
Old-growth forests would be transferred from the Bureau of Land Management to the Forest Service, which would protect them from logging, and new wilderness and Wild & Scenic River protection would also be included.
Specific details are expected to be announced early in the new year, but so far, the plan appears to seek a middle ground between the unsustainable logging of the 1970s and '80s and the gridlock of lawsuits from environmental groups opposed to any logging on public land.
Maybe the impending economic failure of four counties will be enough to bring opposing sides together and get the attention of Congress as a whole. If not, life in some of Oregon's rural timber communities will be grim indeed.