No one is fooling themselves — and we hope that no one includes U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden — that an expected extension of federal timber payments to Oregon's O&C counties is a real solution. While the counties are no doubt happy to receive the funding, it mostly serves to mask the problem and suggest that we can continue to limp along.
The money was included in a bill passed by Congress last week and sent to President Obama that allows continued government sales of stockpiled helium, which is used by, among others, the technology and aerospace industries. (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who apparently thinks his hot air can replace helium, voted against the measure.)
The bill included an extension of the timber payments program, meaning that counties in 41 states will share about $329 million. Thirty-three Oregon counties will get about $100 million, with Jackson County expected to receive $3.5 million and Josephine County $4.4 million.
That's fine and dandy: Jackson County wisely plans to put the unexpected cash into its rainy day fund. Josephine County has no such luxury and plans to spend it on law enforcement.
The funding for the counties is portrayed as welfare by some, and in some ways it is. But it's also important to remember that it is related to a promise made long ago, when the federal government seized lands from the Oregon & California Railroad, after railroad officials proved to be crooks. Those lands were taken off the tax rolls and in return, the feds promised to provide counties with payments from the timber harvest. Then along came the spotted owl, marbled murrelet, et al, and away went the harvest receipts.
Federal payments in lieu of the harvest receipts continued in an increasingly reduced form. That has led to reductions in all sorts of county services, from sheriff's deputies to support for county fairs.
But that part of the equation gets a disproportionate amount of the attention. The real cost comes in the job market, where the timber wars combined with the Great Recession to gut the economies of the O&C counties.
The recession is ending, but much more slowly in timber-dependent areas, to whose side the rising economic ship continues to list. Finding a reasonable solution that would allow a reasonable amount of harvest is the answer, much more so than success in holding out our hats for donations from Uncle Sam.
An O&C timberlands measure that passed the House in September clearly will not be approved by the Senate in the same form. But Sen. Wyden is working on a version that he says has a better chance not only to pass but to be signed by the president.
The House bill would set aside lands for timber harvest and other lands for conservation. It would provide some hope for communities and families for whom hope has been in short supply for going on two decades.
We have hopes, too — hopes that Wyden's bill will aim to accomplish similar goals and, in doing so, provide jobs rather than handouts.