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Timber bills alone will not solve county funding woes

Counties in Oregon are in financial distress, as many as eight reporting near insolvency. Eighteen Oregon counties built much of their infrastructures and services around funding from the timber receipts of the O&C Act of 1937. After years of unsustainable harvesting on these lands, the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 reduced timber sales on federal lands to a small fraction of their historical levels. Oregon counties are now reconciling the costs of their service levels with drastically reduced timber receipts and our recent economic calamity.

In Jackson County, bridge funding from the federal government known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act has been replacing lost timber receipts since 2000. SRS funds were intended to prop up Oregon counties temporarily until revenue sources could be diversified. SRS funding has long since expired. However, small amounts from the federal government continued to drip into Jackson County because of desperate, 11th-hour pleas to Congress.

The discretionary funding dropped to nearly $3 million in the current budget, from $15 million in 2006. County Administrator Danny Jordan reports that Jackson County has reduced spending by $70 million since 2006. It is clear that Jackson County cannot simply tighten the belt and perfect efficiencies forever. We either support new revenue sources now or we accept that Jackson County needs to eliminate services. By definition, those would be the services that are not mandated by law, such as the Extension Service and libraries.

It is also unlawful to adopt a budget that does not balance. One immediate opportunity to save the Extension Service and libraries is the special election in May. It is in the hands of the citizens of Jackson County to choose whether or not these are vital services. And so, we must do our part by turning in our ballots.

Further down the road, there are dueling O&C timber bills in Congress. Both bills endeavor to comply with the O&C Act by increasing timber harvests and delivering 50 percent of the timber receipts to the 18 Oregon counties. Both bills are written in consideration of current environmental protections and move in the direction of sustainable harvest practices. Both stay out of endangered species habitat. Both have bans on cutting old growth and clearcutting. Both provide protection of the watersheds. Both will create jobs.

The House bill, which passed the House of Representatives in September 2013, contains the O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, which is sponsored by Oregon Reps. Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio. Among policies unique to the House bill is a mandate that private harvests must pay taxes before they ship raw product to be milled overseas. That mandate could revitalize some Oregon timber mill jobs. The White House has suggested President Obama would veto the House bill, which calls for management of the plan at the state level instead of continued management at the federal level.

Wyden's bill, the Oregon and California Land Grant Act of 2013, has been proposed to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Wyden bill would harvest less timber and require more periodic monitoring and reporting and collaborative oversight. In the Wyden bill, management of O&C lands would remain under the Bureau of Land Management.

Neither bill offers a financial cure; sustainable timber harvest represents a small portion of the total revenue picture. Communities in the affected counties must continue to diversify revenue sources. No bill will make everyone happy, but our situation is pretty bleak. All county services and programs not mandated by law will either be further reduced or put on the chopping block. Even core services such as sheriff's patrols are being reduced.

This is a call to our leaders to come together, collaborate and compromise. Combine the best of both plans and deliver a bill that works. Compromises are solutions!

And it's a call to our citizens to be real about the financial state we are in and get involved. Form study groups. Mentor. Learn new skills. Create new things. Support local entrepreneurs. Give feedback to libraries and the extension services and help them better adapt.

Darby Stricker is a member of the Talent City Council.