Nick Smith - O&C counties need a hand-up, not a handout

The recent News-Register editorial (Viewpoints, March 14) on distressed O&C counties was disappointing for any Oregonian concerned about the future of our forested communities. O&C counties are not seeking welfare or continuous dependency, only the opportunity to become self-sufficient again.

It’s no coincidence the most distressed counties in Western Oregon have higher unemployment and the most land in federal ownership. The News-Register claims the “crisis would be over” if these counties simply raised property taxes. I believe that’s a false assumption for several reasons.

The federal government owns as much as 70 percent of the land base in O&C counties, particularly in Southwest Oregon, where the social and economic problems are most acute. Unlike private property owners, the federal government can’t be taxed to pay its fair share for county services. Recognizing the unique nature of O&C lands, Congress mandated sustained-yield timber production in these areas to support rural economies while generating revenue for local governments.

County revenue under this mandate substantially diminished when the spotted owl crisis, combined with constant litigation and conflicting regulations, resulted in a 95 percent drop in O&C timber harvests and county revenues.

When the Northwest Forest Plan failed to resolve the crisis, Congress created the “Secure Rural Schools” program as a temporary safety net. The payments were intended to give counties time to diversify their economies, replacing lost revenues from timber harvesting.

Nearly 15 years later, tourism and service-based industries have failed to restore rural family incomes or tax revenues. The safety net payments to counties have continued to dwindle. It’s true more-urban O&C counties have fared better since the 1990s, thanks to an abundance of private industrial lands to attract and grow new businesses. Rural forested communities lack this key advantage and haven’t recovered economically from losing the ability to manage surrounding federal lands.

The call for higher taxes misses the point that rural unemployment averages more than 10 percent, while poverty levels reach as high as 20 percent. With few economic opportunities available, voters will reject property tax increases because they simply can’t afford to pay more.

That’s why reforming federal O&C policies is critical to putting more people back to work in the woods, in the mills and the many small businesses that benefit from a strong forest sector.

Despite the decline in federal timber harvests, the forest sector continues to represent up to a quarter of the entire economic base in these communities. Nobody expects harvest levels to return to peak levels, but even a modest increase in federal timber harvests would create more family-wage jobs and enable more rural communities to catch up to their urban counterparts.

O&C lands grow more than 1.2 billion board feet of wood annually. By comparison, the bipartisan O&C Trust, Conservation and Jobs Act, approved by the U.S. House last September, would increase harvest levels to 550 million board feet a year, generating more than $100 million in annual timber receipt revenues for O&C counties. The resulting jobs and timber receipt revenues, while not a panacea, represent a better alternative to uncertain and decreasing Secure Rural Schools payments.

Authors of the House bill — Congressman Peter DeFazio, Kurt Schrader and Greg Walden – are working with Sen. Ron Wyden on an O&C solution that can pass Congress and be signed by the president.

We should thank our congressional delegation for recognizing the importance of making our rural counties self-sufficient again. Contrary to the News-Register editorial, communities don’t want another handout, only a hand up and an opportunity to return to work.

Nick Smith of Sherwood serves as executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a nonprofit supporting federal forest reforms. Its partners include a number of Oregon county commissioners, various trade groups, the Salem Chamber of Commerce, additional organizations favoring forest management and other government officials in the Pacific Northwest.

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