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Local editorial

Counties need timber payments

Logging has dwindled, but the reasons for the payments haven't

Oregon's congressional delegation has its work cut out for it in pushing to renew federal payments to timber-dependent counties. Congress needs to honor its long-standing commitment to those counties, but pressure to hold the line on federal spending will be tough to overcome.

Since 1908, Congress has shared the proceeds from timber harvests on federal land to compensate rural counties for the property taxes and other income they otherwise would enjoy. Half of Jackson County is federal land.

The 1908 legislation set aside 25 percent of timber proceeds from national forest land for local counties. In 1937, Congress agreed to share half the proceeds from logging on lands it had deeded to the Oregon and California (O&C) Railroad and then repossessed.

When timber harvests plunged in the late 1980s, the payments fell as well. In 2000, Congress agreed to guarantee payments for six years based on historic harvest levels.

Those payments end in 2007. A bill now before Congress would renew the payments until 2013.

In federal terms, this is not a great deal of money: &

36;2.5 billion over seven years, divided among nearly 700 counties in 40 states. But in Oregon, which receives far more than any other state, the money is vitally important.

— Oregon received &

36;273 million last year. Jackson County got &

36;24 million of that, the third most among the 32 Oregon counties eligible for payments and nearly half of its general fund budget.

Critics, especially those from eastern states where the government doesn't control half the land area, decry these payments as welfare. They are anything but.

Not only do rural, formerly timber-dependent counties do without the property taxes they could be earning if they controlled this land, the land cannot be developed and contribute to the economy. And there are costs involved, too: Roads must be maintained, search and rescue operations mounted, fires fought.

Oregon's congressional representatives describe these payments as the lifeblood of rural counties (Sen. Ron Wyden. D-Ore.), without which the state would be an economic dust bowl (Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore.).

They are getting precious little help from the administration. Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, in charge of federal forest policy, told a Senate committee that the payments law is working as intended, but he didn't recommend that it be renewed, noting the difficult budget environment.

The difficult budget environment in Washington will be nothing compared to the devastation that will result here if Congress fails to renew the payment law.

The real question

Forget school funding, PERS reform or the Oregon Health Plan. The real question facing Oregon, it seems, is whether the state needs an official fossil.

That's right. An official state fossil.

The proposal ' now contained in House Joint Resolution — ' is the brainchild of amateur paleontologist Guy DeTorrice, who failed in the 2001 and 2003 sessions of the Legislature to get the bill introduced

Apparently, official state fossils are popular in other states. DeTorrice says Oregon is the only western state in the lower 48 that doesn't have one.

DeTorrice is backing the metasequoia or dawn redwood. The tree ' one of those rare conifers that drops its needles every fall ' grew in Oregon 30 million years ago and still does today. As such, the tree has status of a living fossil.

Imagine what might be accomplished if Oregon's lawmakers devoted all their time to really substantive issues.

Since the metasequoia has survived for at least 30 million years, we would assume it will survive without official status for a little longer.