Kitzhaber sends Congress options for timber county funding

Kitzhaber sends Congress options for timber county funding
Logs are loaded on a truck in the forest near Banks, Ore., in 2012.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Thursday gave members of Congress a menu of options for increasing logging on the so-called O&C timberlands in western Oregon to help rural counties shore up cash-strapped budgets and produce logs for local mills.

The governor said he hopes Oregon's congressional delegation will use the options to produce legislation resolving the funding problem for Oregon timber counties. They have struggled nearly two decades since logging cutbacks were adopted on federal lands to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon.

Kitzhaber said he thinks options from the report can be put together that respect conservation values and still produce more than $70 million for the O&C counties.

That amounts to about double their last payment under a safety net that is expiring, and about 10 times the amount they would get from a direct sharing of federal timber revenues. It is far short of the $110 million the counties have been shooting for.

The 94-page report was the product of three months of work by a taskforce put together by Kitzhaber that included representatives of timber counties, the timber industry, and conservation groups.

The report did not reach consensus on a specific proposal for the 2.5 million-acre patchwork of federal timberlands in Western Oregon and Klamath County.

But it did offer various options, including variations on a plan from three Oregon congressmen that would split the lands in two, with half going to a trust dedicated to timber harvest, and half to be managed for fish and wildlife habitat and clean water.

Members of Oregon's congressional delegation welcomed the report as useful.

"After looking over the materials, I'm optimistic," Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio said in a statement. "The report confirms that there are shared goals and there is common ground among Oregon counties, environmentalists, and the timber industry."

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, who served on the taskforce and is president of the Association of O&C counties, said he was happy that the report included all options considered by the taskforce, including those that would produce $110 million for the counties while waiving environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act.

"If these lands are not exempt in some way from some of the federal rules and regulations, the status quo will remain in place," he said. "The only meaningful change is going to be some modification that provides an opportunity to manage these lands for their stated purposes."

A bill on the O&C lands is likely to be attached to legislation being put together by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., to increase logging on national forests nationwide. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a key player as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said any bill would have to comply with existing environmental laws.

"A successful solution will balance economic, recreation and environmental interests, treat federal taxpayers, counties and private landholders fairly, and lay the foundations for growth in Oregon's O&C counties," Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee said in an email. "The governor's efforts have helped move the ball forward."

Andy Kerr, a conservation consultant and veteran of the 1990s court battles over the spotted owl, said there was no way to solve the funding problems faced by rural timber counties by increasing logging.

"To get the counties the revenue they need, you need to drive species into extinction and you need to pollute a lot of streams," said Kerr, who was not on the taskforce. "You also need a huge increase in funding from Congress to log at those levels. You need to resume logging old growth forests to generate enough revenues. Those things aren't going to happen."

Five conservation groups that did serve on the taskforce said in a joint statement that while all sides moved closer together, they failed to agree on important issues, such as protecting old growth forests, designing timber sales to improve ecological conditions, protecting key salmon habitat, complying with the Endangered Species Act, and protecting clean drinking water.

The American Forest Resource Council, a timber industry group, said the O&C lands have the potential to sustainably produce five times the timber they do now.

Since 1937, the 18 O&C counties have received half the revenues from timber cut on a patchwork of federal lands in Western Oregon that reverted to the federal government after the bankruptcy of the Oregon and California railroad.

The lands are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. When logging was booming in the 1970s, some counties did not have to charge property taxes.

Since cutbacks to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon, the payments dropped precipitously, forcing many of the counties to make deep cuts, particularly in law enforcement. Voters have refused to plug the gap with new taxes.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.