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Senate drops timber money from bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday removed a provision from the energy bill that would have extended for four years payments to rural counties that once depended on federal timber money to fund schools and libraries.

A House bill approved last week would set aside more than $1.5 billion to compensate 700 rural counties in 39 states — mostly in the South and West — that were hurt by federal logging cutbacks in the 1990s. The counties lost money when the government restricted logging in national forests to help preserve the spotted owl and other threatened species.

Timber payments added $23 million annually to Jackson County coffers.

The timber plan had support from both parties, but was dropped in final negotiations Thursday as Senate Democrats agreed to remove tax breaks for a wide range of clean energy industries from the energy bill.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., lamented the possible loss of timber payments in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

"Having the Senate leadership gut county payments from the Energy Bill is but one more in a long list of failures by the leadership of this Congress to get its work done and solve the problems real people are facing every day in our country," Walden wrote. "No budget. No funding for our veterans. No county payments. No fix for the looming tax hike on the middle class. It's been all politics all year with no real accomplishment. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Zilch. This place is dysfunctional."

Andrew Whelan, a Walden spokesman, said the congressman will continue working to include the timber payments in the energy bill.

"This is an unfortunate development, to be sure," Whelan said. "But there is a week left in the current session. There remains a chance we can get something done."

Jackson County Commission Chairman C.W. Smith remained hopeful that a deal is in the works that would restore the timber payments before the session ends.

"There are too many Western senators who support (the payments)," Smith said. "I don't think the issue is going to die. It is disappointing because I thought we were heading toward a relief of our financial situation."

Senate Democrats earlier also abandoned a House-passed provision that would have required investor-owned utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

A Senate Democratic aide confirmed that the timber money was removed but said lawmakers were working to restore it in separate legislation.

The House-backed plan would have authorized $554 million for the timber program in the budget year that starts in October, with payments decreasing each year until they reach $202 million in 2012. An additional $350 million would go to rural states through a program that reimburses state and local governments for federally owned property.