Wyden zeros in on plan to boost logging revenue

Of the Associated Press

GRANTS PASS — Sen. Ron Wyden is zeroing in on his plan for boosting logging on federal lands in Western Oregon and helping rural counties beset by money problems.

The Oregon Democrat announced Thursday a more specific framework for legislation to address complaints that so-called O&C lands have not been turning out the level of money for timber counties they did before logging was cut back to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon from extinction. He said he hoped a bill would become law before the end of the year.

“We are building the kind of coalition that will navigate Congress and get signed by the White House,” Wyden said from Washington, D.C. “It is not going to ignite an ideological war. It will give us a chance to do what we do best in Oregon, which is to find a way for people to get jobs in rural Oregon, boost timber harvest, and respect the treasury.”

Wyden's proposal differs from another in the House in one key area. Wyden's would give timber counties with below-average tax rates incentives to help themselves. However, it does not spell out what those incentives are.

Since 1937, the 18 O&C counties have received half the revenues from timber cut on a patchwork of 2.4 million acres of land in western Oregon that reverted to the federal government after the bankruptcy of the Oregon & California Railroad. The lands are managed by BLM.

When logging was booming in the 1970s, some counties did not have to charge property taxes. Since logging cutbacks were implemented on federal lands to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon, timber payments dropped precipitously. A federal safety net to make up for the drop has expired, and some counties are struggling to keep jails open and sheriff's patrols on the road.

On Tuesday, three of those counties voted on proposals to boost property taxes to fill the budget gap on law enforcement. Voters defeated tax hikes in Curry and Josephine counties but approved jail funding in Lane County, the largest recipient of O&C funds.

While short on specifics, Wyden proposed splitting the O&C lands roughly in half, with a portion managed primarily for timber, and a portion managed for fish and wildlife habitat. Unlike the House proposal, Wyden's plan would keep the lands under federal agency control and federal law. It calls for revising federal laws covering O&C lands to allow a steady and sustainable timber harvest. It also called for land swaps to consolidate the one square mile checkerboard of lands to make management easier.

The counties and other interest groups would figure out how the lands would be divided.

Wyden proposed a separate bill to restore the federal subsidy to rural counties dependent on natural resources. The aide formula would take into account local tax rates that are below average and include incentives for counties to help themselves.

“This provides everyone concerned about jobs in rural Oregon and about stable funding for counties and the services they provide with an opportunity to shape the future of O&C lands,” Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken said in a statement.

The plan drew support from the timber industry, a conservation group that had vehemently opposed the House plan, and the primary sponsor of the House plan.

“Instead of a bailout based on public lands logging, this appears to be following a shared responsibility approach where there would be a federal component, but counties are going to have to do their fair share,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the goals of Wyden's plan are consistent with the ideas in the House proposal, and he looked forward to working with Wyden.

Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said he was encouraged Wyden recognized the need for legislation to increase logging on the O&C lands to supply local mills and provide revenues to counties.

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