WASHINGTON - Federal agencies must increase the timber harvest on public lands as part of a two-pronged solution to the challenge of finding a revenue stream for cash-strapped rural counties such as Curry County, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Tuesday.
"What we are talking about is pursuing this on a dual track: boosting timber cuts and providing a safety net that provides for schools, roads and police in resource-dependent communities and then our bipartisan coalition will also support reauthorizing the (Secure Rural Schools) payment program," he said.
Counties dominated by federally-owned land face a permanent impairment on their ability to grow their tax bases, yet must pay to provide emergency services on public land. Heavily forested counties such as Curry have been hit particularly hard, since heightened environmental restrictions over the past few decades have severely curtailed timber harvests, resulting in job losses and mill closures that further erode the local economy.
To compensate timber counties for the economic devastation that followed federal restrictions on logging, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools Act in 2000, which authorized federal payments which grew smaller over time to timber counties.
Since the original legislation expired in 2006, Congress has extended the payments, including a one-year extension in 2012.
Last year, Oregon received almost $100 million in timber payments, including $36 million from the Bureau of Land Management for the OandC counties - 18 counties that include a portion of the federally owned former Oregon and California Railroad Co. lands - in Western Oregon.
Last year, Curry County received $1.4 million and $2.4 million from the BLM and the Forest Service, respectively, while Coos received $2.2 million and $299,000, Douglas $10.2 million and $8.6 million, and Josephine $5.2 million and $1.5 million.
Wyden, chair of Energy and Natural Resources Committee, warned during Tuesday's hearing on the future of federal payments to rural counties that simply returning to the logging practices of the 1980s boom is not a viable solution.
"Experts tell us it is not possible to cut enough trees to produce historic levels of funding in rural counties and comply with the multiple uses of our federal forests that our communities want and meet our bedrock environmental laws," he said. Short cuts, like selling off federal lands or ignoring environmental laws, will not pass the Senate or be signed into law by President Barack Obama, he said.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the most senior Republican on the committee, said that Secure Rural Schools was supposed to be temporary, and provide rural counties with time to rebuild their economies.
"The federal government is broke, and we can't continue to pay counties to not utilize the lands within their boundaries. We need to either utilize our federal lands to generate revenue and jobs for our rural communities or we should divest the federal government of those lands and let the states, or the counties, manage those lands," she said.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the agency's accelerated restoration strategy, a plan to improve forest health put into place in 2012, identified up to 83 million acres in need of treatment. Of those, 12.5 million acres require treatment using large machinery, and the agency calculates that an additional 2.6 billion board feet of forest products were sold in fiscal year 2012 as a result.
Sequestration, the mandatory spending cuts that went into effect earlier this month, applies to timber payments, he said. While the BLM withheld money from its most recent payments, the Forest Service did not, and will soon inform states and counties how it plans to proceed, Tidwell said.
Paul Pearce, president of the National Forest Counties and School Coalition, said that timber payments provide an average of 23 percent of county road budgets, and in six counties, it accounts for more than 40 percent of their road budget. He said eliminating the timber payments would cost local businesses almost $1.3 billion in sales revenues; the government at all levels would lose $178 million in tax revenues; and 10,400 people would lose their jobs.