In case anyone wondered, Oregon's timber counties are still suffering from broken budgets, unemployment, and bureaucratic, environmental, political and legal gridlock.
Representatives made that clear in testimony Thursday before the Joint Legislative Task Force on County Payments. Perhaps six to 12 Oregon counties could cease offering basic services unless they find money to replace federal timber payments; some have closed departments, used reserve funds and even released jail prisoners to cut costs.
"We're eating our seed corn," Coos County Commissioner Fred Messerle told committee members Thursday in Salem. "Deferring maintenance and capital investments is killing us, and we're managing for the future on a crisis basis."
The county funding problem stems from the steep reduction in timber harvests on federal forests, which makes up 53 percent of the land in Oregon. Counties receive no property tax revenue from federal land, so the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for decades provided a share of timber sale money to county governments and schools.
Messerle and many other county and industry officials believe increasing timber harvests on federal land is the answer, because counties get a share of harvest revenue. Conservationists and other critics argue the counties have had decades to diversify their economies and find other funding sources.
Messerle applauded Gov. John Kitzhaber's search for a solution but said many rural timber counties may be "broke" by the time it comes about.
"We need an advocate at the state level to push it forward," he said. "We've got the tools to responsibly use our resources, but we need to have the will to do it.
"Rural Oregon is on the edge of a cliff," Messerle concluded. "We don't want to leave a legacy of poverty and failure, and of being referred to as the Appalachia of the West."
Timber harvests and revenue declined because of policy changes, recessions and environmental restrictions, so the federal government attempted to fill the gap with the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The act was renewed twice but expired in 2012.
Congress passed a bill that provided one more year of funding, but the $100 million included for Oregon counties is less than half of what they previously received annually.
One of the proposed solutions involves what are called the O&C Railroad lands, about 2.3 million acres of timber scattered in a checkerboard pattern over 18 counties. The land was granted to a railroad company that folded; the federal government took the land back and put it under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.
Logging on O&C land has been curtailed like everywhere else, but U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and others have proposed a policy change. Half the land, containing the best old growth, would be left alone, preserved except for thinning or other work needed to keep the forest healthy. The other half would be logged over time; some of it on 60- to 80-year harvest rotations and some on 120-year rotations. Timber sale revenue would be distributed to the counties and schools.
"We have a solution in front of us, we've got to get it implemented," Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said.
Tom Tuchmann, the governor's adviser on the issue, agreed national forest policy needs work, but starting with the O&C lands makes sense. "It's a lot easier to stop things in Washington (D.C.) than it is to get them passed," he said.