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Bates proposes state take over timber holdings

for the Mail Tribune

SALEM — Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, has jumped into the federal timber tax revenue funding crisis by proposing that the state acquire the federal timber holdings that should be producing timber taxes but are mired in environmental lawsuits.

Bates said Oregon should either ask the federal government to cede the lands to the state or purchase them outright. They could then be managed by the Oregon Department of Forestry under the agency's sustainable yield policy, generating a reliable source of income for the counties involved, including Jackson.

Several other proposals are being floated as the 33 counties with so-called O&C lands struggle to get an extension from Congress of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which replaced the timber taxes lost to reductions in logging for schools and county services. That funding is due to expire June 30, which has triggered planned cuts to services in Jackson and other counties, including the closure of Jackson County's libraries.

A breakthrough in Congress produced an extension this week, but President Bush has vowed to veto it because it includes a deadline for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Bates is the first legislator to get actively involved in moves to acquire the old railroad grant lands taken over by the federal government. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, in his March newsletter also advocates for state control of Oregon's forests.

Federal payments from timber harvests have been a mainstay of funding for rural schools, roads and other vital public services in the 33 counties. But environmental lawsuits and court rulings have sharply reduced the harvest.

According to the Association of Oregon Counties, timber revenues from the old railroad lands are barely 15 percent of what they were in the late 1980s. AOC spokesman Gil Ridell said the reduced harvest is due primarily to challenges filed under the federal clean air, clean water and endangered species regulations.

More than 60 million board feet of timber already sold but not cut on the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District has been put on hold because of a lawsuit by environmentalists.

Bates began exploring the options in January, meeting with state forester Marvin Brown and contacting Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"I haven't talked to my (Jackson) county commissioners yet, because they're too wrapped up in Washington on the extension," he said.

Bates said it will be "crucial" to gain support of the 33 county commissions and the environmental community — no easy task, he admits, as the two sides float competing proposals.

Bates noted that when BLM took ownership of the O&C lands, the agreement included a 50-50 split in revenues between counties and the federal government along with a promise the counties would have these timber revenues in perpetuity. The revenue split from national forests is 75-25 in favor of the federal treasury.

Bates predicted that under management of the state foresters the O&C lands could generate $250 million annually for local governments and schools.

He said state forest cuts fall between the private timberlands operating at a maximum sustained cut and the relatively low yield of all federal holdings.

"Neither the timber interests or environmentalists are happy about the amount harvested from state lands, which to me it probably means it's just about right," said Bates.

He said it may take several years to reach some kind of decision, but said it's time to "have the public discussion, to get the buzz out."