Time to update the O&C Act

Back when the United States was promoting settlement of the West with land grants, homestead acts, donation claims and other giveaways, the government made a deal with a railroad company. The Oregon & California Railroad was to build a line from San Francisco to Portland. In exchange, the government gave the O&C Railroad every other section of land across 18 western Oregon counties, to be sold to "bona fide settlers" in lots of 160 acres. The railroad violated its part of the deal and, in 1916, the federal government took back the unused portion of those lands.

In 1937 Congress passed the O&C Act, saying those lands "shall be managed for permanent forest production, and the timber thereon shall be sold, cut and removed in conformity with the principal of sustained yield for the purpose of providing a permanent source of timber supply, protecting watersheds, regulating stream flow, and contributing to the economic stability of local communities and industries, and providing recreational facilities." The Act goes on to require "sustained yield" four times, referring to "sustained yield capacity" and "sustained yield management," and using the words "permanent forest production" twice.

To make up for the fact that these lands take up a large part of the tax base (53 percent in Jackson County), the second part of the O&C Act provides a formula for distributing money from "permanent forest production." The money was paid "in lieu of taxes." At the height of logging O&C lands, money paid to the counties averaged more than 400 percent of the tax equivalency. Eighteen Oregon counties became "timber-dependent counties," relying on O&C money to keep citizen tax rates artificially low.

As people's knowledge about the full value of forests increased, the requirement for "protecting watersheds" and the decline in big trees all led to a sharp drop in revenue for the counties. Regulations, lawsuits and the ongoing political tug-of-war about the money created the "timber wars" that have polarized the West.

Now a surplus of ideas are being discussed to end the war. Most of those ideas concentrate on increasing the harvest. We would once again have a peak economic benefit from our forests, but we would make the timber income more unstable for future generations. Einstein said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

So we can't cut our way to stability. We can, however, develop the resource and establish a management program that provides "a permanent source of timber supply" in a stable, balanced manner. We can do it by putting people to work in the woods improving the poor conditions that have resulted from human interference. Small contracts for one- or two-person crews to enter the forest with small machines, such as UTVs, could put hundreds to work while restoring our forests to "the principle of sustained yield" and bringing Oregon wood products to market.

That kind of investment, while the best thing for the forests in the long term, will not end the war. To do that, the two parts of the O&C Act must be separated so the focus on forest health is not dominated by the issue of money.

Certainly O&C counties with so much federal land deserve a fair deal to make up for lost taxes. Accustomed to high-yield timber payments, however, the instability of paying through timber harvest is now all too obvious. Secure Rural Schools payments made up some of the shortcomings, but they were never a permanent solution. Only by creating a new formula for tax equity with the federal government will the O&C counties get the "economic stability" promised to communities. Only by separating forest management from the money formula and managing forests for long-term health can industry get the stable timber supply promised from those lands.

The two major parts of the O&C Act do not need to be linked. What we've learned since 1937 should prompt us to update the act for the 21st century. We have to be big enough to admit that our timber lands have been overcut, that our forests are no longer the rich dynamic first seen by Oregon's pioneers.

We must invest in those forests to reach a truly sustainable timber base. We can't do that if the only reason we look at our forests is to see how much money will flow into county treasuries. Rather than proposing yesterday's solutions in new packaging, our leaders need to update the O&C Act so that we get the stability it promised.

Jack Duggan holds degrees in forestry and communications. He manages a family tree farm in the Applegate.

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