From the Oregonian Editorial Board September 28, 2011
It's just as well that Portland was Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's only Oregon stop on his tour this week promoting President Obama's jobs act. No audience in rural Oregon would have appreciated Vilsack's bleak view of the future of federal payments to counties.
Vilsack predicted that the expiring program that provides a lifeline to timber counties in Oregon and 40 other states will not survive the congressional supercommittee and its charge of making at least $1.5 trillion in spending cuts. If he's right -- and we hope he's not -- the payments arriving in Oregon in the coming days will be the last.
If those payments are not renewed, and nothing is done to promptly provide the counties with more revenues from public forests, Oregon will have a rural catastrophe on its hands. Federal payments pay for essential services across timber country; without them, some county governments are likely headed for default.
Listening to Vilsack, it's not clear that he or anyone else leading the Obama administration fully understands the challenges of keeping county governments and schools operating in places where the U.S. Forest Service owns more than half the land and about the only economic activity it generates is whatever is spent putting out the wildfires that flare every summer.
Yes, there's a federal budget crisis. But the argument for support of communities surrounded by public forestlands has not changed in more than a century. One way or the other, through timber receipts, direct payments or another source -- the government is obliged to share the costs of schools, roads and other public services in places where federal ownership of land cuts deeply into local tax bases.
The Agriculture secretary repeated a lot of the same tried-and-failed economic ideas of the past 20 years -- that yet another forest rule will get things moving, that recreation is the answer for rural counties, that there's more money and investment coming, just you wait, from energy and other activities.
Well, new forest rules have come and gone, all to no particular effect. And while some communities -- Bend, Sisters, even Joseph -- have made themselves over into tourist towns, recreation hasn't proved an economic panacea. It hasn't helped, either, that the feds have cut spending on recreation.
Look, no one likes county payments, which are more or less welfare checks to over 700 counties. All these places would prefer jobs and sharing logging revenue and other strong economic activity from neighboring federal forests. Before Congress and the Obama administration leave county payments on the cutting-room floor, they have an obligation to deliver real alternatives.
There are promising ideas. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., is promoting a plan to separate productive forests formerly owned by the O&C Railroad into two trusts, one that would protect old growth, the other that would be available for active commercial harvest. Others have proposed creating a new payment formula based on factors such as the counties with greatest need and rewarding counties for actions that bolster forest goals, such as reducing development near fire-prone areas.
Oregon's timber counties are surely open to change. But all these reforms seem distant, and the last county payment checks soon will be in the mail. It's wrong to cut the counties off before anything is done to increase revenue from forests, especially now, when rural communities are fighting for their very existence.