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County will get $3 million in timber funding

County officials expressed satisfaction Saturday at a press conference called to tout $3 million the county secured last week when Congress reauthorized timber payments to rural counties as part of a $1.3 trillion federal spending bill.

Jackson County will get $3,084,019.95 in Secure Rural Schools funding, part of $56 million that will go to 18 Oregon timber counties for fiscal year 2017.

The counties will split $80 million in fiscal year 2018, though officials said the amount per county has not been worked out yet.

Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler was happy that the legislation allows broader uses for the funds. A segment of the $3 million can be used to fund the county’s “very busy” search-and-rescue unit, which he said will improve the way the Sheriff’s Office trains its deputies and volunteers.

“It’s going to be a welcome addition to the funding in Jackson County,” Sickler said. “This is going to allow us to better serve our citizens.”

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts agreed.

“Public safety is a big part of what we use these monies for,” Roberts said.

Up to 7 percent of the Secure Rural Schools funding can be used for specific public safety programs known as Title III, according to Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, who is also chairman of the Oregon Association of O&C Counties.

In past years, SRS Title III money could be used to reimburse the Sheriff’s Office for search-and-rescue missions only, but the funding secured last week can be used for search-and-rescue training, equipment and patrols on federal lands, Freeman said.

“The O&C dollars are used for other things too, like public health and mental health,” Freeman said.

SRS payments were originally ­designed to compensate rural counties for money they lost after a sharp decline in logging on federal lands.

In addition to funding the Secure Rural School program, the sprawling spending package approved by Congress included money for wildfire suppression and forest management. Walden said that in discussions with Sen. Ron Wyden, they devised new, separate fire-suppression accounts for BLM and the Forest Service, allowing the agencies more flexibility in managing forests during wildfire season.

“We did management reforms and we finally fixed how we pay for fighting fire,” said Congressman Greg Walden, who spoke at Saturday’s press conference.

“We finally succeeded in this legislation to say that we’ll pay for fighting fire much like we do other disasters.”

The SRS funding is in addition to $27 million already paid to counties in 2017 for timber harvests on federal lands, Walden said.

Josephine County will get $2.83 million in SRS money this fiscal year, Klamath County is expected to get $6.09 million, and Lake County is expected to get $1.8 million, according to numbers provided by Walden.

Coos County Commissioner Bob Main said his cash-strapped county needed the windfall.

“We were going to have to cut deputies in our jails and on the road, and we were only going to be able to buy one new vehicle for all the deputies,” said Main, who serves on the O&C Counties board and the Association of Oregon Counties Public Lands and Natural Resources Committee.

Walden advocated using the funding for one-time improvements at area schools, such as improved school fences or new security systems.

“It’s kind of a bonus payment that could help schools and communities make their schools safer or better,” Walden said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.