Kitzhaber panel offers ways to aid timber counties

Report is praised by lawmakers as a key first step in solving the O&C lands funding dilemma

A 14-member panel created by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to solve the complex O&C timber issue hasn't found a solution, but the governor believes it has cut into the logjam.

Kitzhaber on Thursday indicated the panel's 94-page report provides enough options to both protect the environment while producing more than $70 million annually for the cash-strapped O&C counties. If that amount is achieved, it would double the last timber payment from a safety net that is ending later this year, but it still falls short of the $110 million targeted by the 18 counties.

"I applaud the panel for establishing a foundation of understanding and trust between county officials, forest product industry representatives, and conservation leaders that has eluded O&C discussions for decades," Kitzhaber said in a prepared statement.

"I believe a solution can and should be passed into law that achieves significant economic and environmental benefits for Oregonians," added the governor, who sent a letter to the Oregon congressional delegation detailing the report.

John Rachor, a member of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners taking the lead on O&C issues, said he intends to pore over the lengthy report.

"I know the 14-member panel put a lot into it and the governor is very serious about it," he said.

Since 1937, Jackson and Josephine counties have been among the 18 Western Oregon counties receiving timber receipts in lieu of taxes from former Oregon & California Railroad Co. lands now under U.S. Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction.

However, because of reduced harvests, the counties' timber receipt incomes have been drastically cut in recent years, pushing the counties into financially precarious positions.

Created last fall, the panel spent three months poring over the complex issues involving the O&C funds. The task force included representatives of the counties, the timber industry and environmental groups. Kitzhaber asked the group to come up with a proposal that would boost funding for counties and timber production while not harming habitat for salmon, northern spotted owls and other wildlife.

The report was released the same week the BLM said it was holding back 10 percent of a special $38 million payment which was scheduled to be given to the timber counties today. The county timber payments are under the auspices ofThe panel's work is a step forward in ultimately providing improved funding for Oregon's timber counties, said U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

"Although they could not reach consensus on a solution, the information they provided will help efforts in Congress to get jobs back in the woods, which will help grow healthy communities," said Walden, whose 2nd Congressional District includes Jackson County.

"As everyone is well aware, many of Oregon's rural forested communities don't have the funds they need to keep sheriff's officers on the streets and criminals in jail, to run their local governments and schools, or to maintain their roads," he added.

With U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairing the Senate Natural Resources Committee and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., presiding over the House Natural Resources Committee, the time is ripe to solve the issue in a way favorable to the O&C counties, he concluded.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, who has worked with Walden and others to solve the issue, agreed.

"After looking over the materials, I'm optimistic," DeFazio said in a prepared statement. "The report confirms that there are shared goals and there is common ground among Oregon counties, environmentalists and the timber industry. I truly believe a long-term solution is out there."

In an email to the Mail Tribune, Tom Towslee, spokesman for Wyden, said the senator will examine the report closely.

"Oregonians expect a resolution of the issues created by the unique history of the O&C lands," Towslee said. "A successful solution will balance economic, recreation and environmental interests, treat federal taxpayers, counties and private landholders fairly, and lay the foundations for growth in Oregon's O&C counties."

Efforts led by Kitzhaber and the panel have helped move the ball forward, he said.

"It is a very tough nut to crack," said Medford resident Jack Williams, a member of the panel. "But I think the negotiating process we went through over the past three months brought us much closer."

Williams, the senior scientist for Trout Unlimited and former supervisor of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, is one of six conservation representatives on the panel.

"This is just the beginning, but Gov. Kitzhaber has laid a solid foundation from which to build a lasting solution," he said.

"I want to see the fish and wildlife values protected — that's No. 1 for me," he added. "But I want to see a sustainable timber supply off these lands as well. The jobs and adaptive management components are very important."

However, he stressed the counties cannot depend on timber harvests alone to pay their bills.

"The economic solution cannot be carried solely on the back of timber — they (counties) have to have a diverse portfolio," he said.

Simon Hare, a Josephine County commissioner, and Jennifer Philippi, co-owner of Rough and Ready Lumber Co. in the Illinois Valley.

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Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.


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