Federal government to release timber money

By The Curry Coastal Pilot May 24, 2013 07:32 pm

WASHINGTON D.C. — An amendment won’t be needed after all to prompt the federal government to send funds to 18 timber-dependent Oregon counties.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of the Interior would release next week nearly $2 million owed to the counties. An Interior Department official confirmed the announcement Thursday.

Curry County will receive $68,520.

WASHINGTON D.C. — An amendment won’t be needed after all to prompt the federal government to send funds to 18 timber-dependent Oregon counties.

Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of the Interior would release next week nearly $2 million owed to the counties. An Interior Department official confirmed the announcement Thursday.

Curry County will receive $68,520.

“All of this is going to ‘quote’ Curry County, but all of this won’t be for use in the general fund, said Curry County Accountant Gary Short. 

The Resource Advisory Council gets $5,363 of that money, and Title III funds totalling $4,692 are dedicated to “active search and rescue costs on federal forests lands.

The general fund, then, will receive just under $57,000.

“An additional $56,979 (to the general fund) is certainly nice, but it is not much to get excited about,” said Curry County Accountant Gary Short. “And it does very little to help the county.

“Every little bit is appreciated,” said Commissioner David Itzen. “But it’s not enough to come close to compensating for the lack of timber revenue we’ve historically received. Even SRS payments have been slowly rationing down. They were always inadequate.

“We appreciate the work of the senators,” he added. “They put a lot of pressure on the BLM to release this money. But it’s pennies on the dollar compared to what we need.”

It wasn’t an easy battle, either.

“The department has been working tirelessly on this complex issue for months and we wanted to make sure we got it right,” Jessica Kershaw, press secretary for the BLM in Washington, D.C., wrote in an email. “We know this funding is really critical for rural communities so we are glad to get this money out the door as soon as possible.”

Wyden and Merkley on Wednesday introduced an amendment to the farm bill requiring the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is overseen by the Interior Department, to release the money to the counties. The U.S. Senate is currently considering the farm bill.

The funds are part of the Secure Rural Schools program, which has supplied an annual cash boost to heavily forested counties for more than a decade. The payments compensate the counties for the lack of logging on federal land.

Established by the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in 2000, the program focuses on 18 counties in Oregon where the BLM manages about 2.4 million acres.

While the BLM disbursed $39 million to the counties in February, according to the Department of Interior, it withheld about 10 percent of the owed payment, bracing for possible sequestration, or budget cuts mandated by Congress. Sequestration began in March and the cuts ended up being about half of what the BLM prepared for, so the BLM owes the counties a combined $1.7 million.

Sequestration shouldn’t have been used as a reason for the federal government to withhold the money, said Dennis Linthicum, chairman of the Klamath County Commission.

“I am glad they are finally coming clean,” he said.

Douglas County, at the heart of Oregon’s timber country, will receive the highest payment of $509,330 while Lincoln County on the coast will receive the lowest of $5,600, according to the Interior Department.

“The Interior Department’s commitment to finally release this money to our state’s timber counties is welcome news,” Wyden said.

Jewell, the former CEO of Seattle-based REI, replaced Ken Salazar as Interior Secretary in early April.

“I am pleased that the Interior Department has come to its senses and released this important money for rural Oregon,” Merkley said in a press release. “The sequester is bad policy and delays like this have a real impact on our counties’ budgets and on Oregon families. While we work together toward a comprehensive, sustainable solution, our Oregon timber counties must continue to receive the federal support they are owed.”

“What we really need is for Wyden to utilize his position as chair of the natural resource committee in the Senate to restore the harvest on O&C lands and the income flowing to the 18 counties,” Itzen said. “It appears he’s thinking about going in that direction. That’s reassuring.”

Pilot reporter Jane Stebbins contributed to this story.