No easy task

Governor's timber panel has its work cut out for it in crafting a new way forward

The 14-member panel appointed by Gov. John Kitzhaber to create a proposal for allowing more logging on federal lands in Oregon's timber-dependent counties has barely started its work. But already the task looks about as daunting as logging those lands with nothing but axes and old-fashioned crosscut saws.

First, well-known conservationist Andy Kerr declined an invitation to join the panel. A week or so later, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, who will play a key role in trying to persuade Congress to support the panel's proposal, sent another bolt of lightning into the forest when he released a seven-point "road map for federal legislation to navigate both the House and Senate." Wyden's road map included the notion that the counties "also need to do their part in reducing disparities in tax rates and developing a reasonable level of revenue from local activities."

Kerr and Wyden both did the right thing. If Kerr, as The Oregonian's Charles Pope reported, felt that Kitzhaber's ground rules required concessions he could not make, his presence would have been counterproductive. And Wyden only stated the obvious. If anything, their actions might help inject some urgency into the process.

Jamie Damon, a Clackamas County commissioner and member of the Kitzhaber panel who also is a professional mediator, described the challenge: "We're trying to create a new path forward where one doesn't necessarily exist."

Wyden's "road map" is really a list of seven principles that focus on what he thinks should be included in the proposal to make it politically palatable: stable funding for counties, sustainability, conservation, more efficient management of forestlands, legality, assignment of land-management responsibilities and safeguarding old growth. While the details within some of these categories — such as the role of taxes in stable funding and the possibility of private management of some federal lands — are controversial, the broad goals are reasonable.

Both Wyden and Kitzhaber have expressed concern that an existing proposal to revise management of so-called Oregon & California railroad lands — backed by Oregon U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden — cannot navigate its way through Congress. Thus the need to find a new path.

While attention has focused on reaching a compromise between conservationists and the forest products industry, both of which are represented on the advisory panel, that is not the only challenge. Whatever compromise the panel negotiates must also be applicable in other states.

It helps that Wyden likely will be chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in the next Congress. But it's unlikely that he can deliver a bill that grants his home state more say in management of federal lands unless some of that leniency extends elsewhere.

"You don't get to do something that groundbreaking without other people looking to apply it to their states," said chief of staff Jeff Michels.

This probably seems unnecessarily complicated to rural residents long starved for hope. Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, also a member of Kitzhaber's panel, said the view in these counties is: "They have been doing their part; they've been living within their budgets."

Robertson also points out that even if residents of struggling counties like Josephine and Curry wanted to raise their taxes, the options would be limited. The quickest path would be a temporary levy, and the political cultivation necessary for a yes vote would take months, if not years.

We will repeat our long-held belief that these counties, most of which have property-tax rates 40 to 80 percent below the state median, eventually need to raise taxes. But political leaders in Salem and Washington, D.C., also have to recognize that these rural residents want tangible signs that more forest jobs are on the way before they'll even think about voting for higher tax rates.

Damon, the mediator, summed up the challenge, saying both sides need to "come at it more from an analytical perspective and less of an emotional perspective."

That's easier to say than to do, but it's the only road map that's likely to lead to a more prosperous future.

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