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State delegation pushes for timber payments bill

A bill championed by Oregon's congressional delegation would extend timber payments to budget-strapped counties, including nearly $1 million for Umatilla County.

But the fate of the bill is by no means certain.

"The challenge here is going to be finding a way to pay for it," said Andrew Whelan, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

A 12-member, bipartisan "super committee" created in the wake of the summer debt ceiling standoff is tasked with cutting $1.2 trillion in government spending by Thanksgiving. In an atmosphere of ruthless budget cuts, programs such as county timber payments are vulnerable.

The bill, the County Payments Reauthorization Act of 2011, would extend the Secure Rural Schools Program, with 5 percent reductions every year, for five years and the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program through 2017.

The Secure Rural Schools Program pays counties for revenue lost when timber sales on public lands declined because of federal regulation.

The PILT program compensates counties for federal lands within their jurisdiction that do not generate tax revenue. More than 700 counties in 41 states have received funding under the original county payments law.

That law expired in 2006 but was extended in 2008. The extension ended Sept. 30 and Oregon counties are slated to receive their last checks early next year.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., plans to introduce the bill this week. It will be attached to a larger government spending bill that Oregon congressmen hope will pass the Senate, and negotiations with the House of Representatives, with little scrutiny.

"I assume they have bigger fish to fry and hopefully there are enough in the Republican caucus that will support the extension that they won't make it a priority to stop it," said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

Although the Oregon delegation supports extending timber payments, at least two, DeFazio and Walden, favor long-term solutions to county budget woes.

DeFazio said he would like to see federal lands put into a trust for Oregon counties, with a portion set aside for conservation and another for sustainable forestry.

He decried the "stupid diameter rule restriction," put in place during the Clinton administration, which prevented loggers from harvesting timber more than 21 inches in diameter on federal land.

Walden also favors opening up more federal lands for resource extraction.

"Congressman Walden is working on a long-term solution that puts Oregonians back to work in the woods," Whelan said.

Erin Mills is a reporter with the East Oregonian in Pendleton. For more, see www.EastOregonian.com.