Against all odds, federal timber payments likely will flow to Oregon counties for at least another year.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, pulling another legislative rabbit out of his hat, attached a one-year extension of the payments to an unrelated bill dealing with a pending shortage of helium. The bill, which is considered essential because helium is used in manufacturing, passed the House unanimously this week and should have smooth sailing in the Senate.
It’s getting harder and harder to get Congress to approve these timber payments, which are intended to reimburse rural Western counties – including 18 in Oregon – for the revenue they’ve lost as logging operations in those counties, dominated by federal forest lands, have dipped dramatically.
As Wyden noted in a town hall meeting he held this summer in Albany, the payments aren’t welfare to the counties – but, increasingly, that’s the attitude Wyden’s colleagues have. That explains in part why legislative sleight of hand was required to get the payments extended for another year.
It’s not as if the Oregon counties, including Linn County, are spending the timber money frivolously: Counties rely on the money for law enforcement and road maintenance and other essential services.
And the amount of money has dropped by almost two-thirds in just the last few years: In 2007, the Secure Rural Schools program provided about $280 million to Oregon counties.
The amount attached to the helium bill? About $100 million – but that’s before the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester slice another 5 to 8 percent out of that.
Our guess is that the legislative trickery required to pull the payments out of the dustbin of history just about has run its course. This truly could be the last hurrah for the program.
As Wyden reminded his Albany audience this summer, however, the timber payments always were meant as a stopgap, to buy time so that counties that used to depend on logging can rethink their economies.
But the work to retool an economy requires time – decades, in some cases – to truly take root.
And there will be a big place for logging even in those retooled economies. So in many ways, the timber payment issue goes hand-in-hand with proposals to overhaul the management of federal lands in Oregon once owned by the Oregon & California Railroad. A bill which would do that (and which also would increase logging on those lands) has passed the House. But the bill’s prospects are dim in the Senate, where Wyden says he’s working on his own proposal.
As Wyden knows as well as anyone, the time is growing short for Oregon’s rural counties. He’s done good work to keep the timber payments alive for at least one more year – but now the time finally has come to think about these lands over the long term.
Or maybe those rural counties can get involved in helium production. We hear that business is booming. (mm)