by Deborah Steele Hazen
Following these introductory paragraphs is a commentary by Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare, which was first published April 25 in the Grants Pass Daily Courier, and a letter to U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley from the Association of Oregon Counties.
The federal “Secure Rural Schools” (SRS) payments in lieu of timber harvests on federal lands were developed as a bridge payment safety net to allow time for full implementation of the Northwest Forest Management Plan. Sadly, according to Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde, “we have come woefully short of the harvest goals set out in the plan.”
In 2008, those SRS payments were more than $2,000,000 to Columbia County, one of the original “O&C” (Oregon and California Railroad) counties which were given a share of federal timber harvest revenues in exchange for property that was taken off the tax rolls to allow for the development of railroads.
This year, as discussed further in the article elsewhere in this issue about the county budget, Columbia County is looking at offsetting a $1,700,000 budget shortfall.
Moreover, says Commissioner Hyde, “we are more interested in payments as a result of active forest management that would not only provide revenue to counties and schools, but revitalize our timber economy in Oregon.”
The following commentary by a southern Oregon county commissioner was spurred by the closure of a mill in Cave Junction, but the points it makes are also very relevant to rural Northwest Oregon.
Healthy Forests, Healthy Economy Can Co-Exist
by Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare
With the devastating news that Cave Junction’s Rough & Ready Lumber Co. is closing after more than 90 years in business, I am more adamant than ever that federal forest policy is broken and our federal government has failed the good people of Josephine County. Change must happen to ensure the future viability of Oregon’s timber-rich rural communities.
Even in the wake of this devastating news, not all hope is lost. It seems to me the ingredients for meaningful public forest management reform are at hand.
Looking around, we find unhealthy, overstocked federal forests in desperate need of stewardship, rural counties plagued with floundering economies and staggering unemployment, timber mills closing or struggling to survive and county governments on the brink of collapse, due to the loss of shared timber receipts to fund vital services like sheriff’s patrols and county jails.
We also have more trees in Oregon’s forests now than at any time in recorded history. Our existing lumber mills in Oregon have the capacity to process an additional one billion board feet annually. All the while, the price of timber is holding steady at profitable levels, as new home construction picks up.
A bipartisan contingent of Oregon’s U.S. congressional delegation has drafted a creative, yet comprehensive, plan that would alleviate this “logger jam,” the O&C Trust Conservation and Jobs Act. This proposal would provide for balanced forest management and conservation goals – an increase in timber production and forest health restoration efforts – on former Oregon & California Railroad land now managed by the federal government.
Oregon’s self-professed environmentalist, Gov. John Kitzhaber, even says he supports (in principle) management goals relative to job creation, an increase in timber supply, county funding and community stability.
And finally – the icing on the cake of this recipe for recovery – Oregon’s Sen. Ron Wyden is chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He holds the key to success or failure in his hands.
So why is it likely that the gridlock of the past three decades will continue to plague Oregon’s forest-rich counties?
It would be easy to blame the powerful environmental extremist lobby and its ability to use federal laws to endlessly litigate any meaningful timber harvest. As the Krauss and Phillippi families were wrestling with the painful decision to close their family’s business and lay off 85 employees for lack of a steady supply of logs, Rough & Ready Lumber Co. was waiting on 14 million board feet of purchased sales that were held up in pointless environmental litigation.
The responsibility for the conflict could lie with those who would prefer an annual subsidy check from the federal government or an increase in local property taxes, rather than shared receipts from timber harvests, as a way to pay for vital county services.
Actually, I point to those holding the reasonable middle ground, those who have forfeited their majority power to direct legislators to solve this issue. I’m sure most citizens would agree with me that healthy forests and a healthy economy can coexist in rural Oregon.
And although I am proud of the work of Oregon’s representatives in Congress, especially that of the House Natural Resources Committee, I am disappointed that during four months as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Wyden has not seen fit to address this matter. While the House has a number of proposals to fix the plight of rural America, Wyden has instead elected to focus on expanding wilderness areas, enlarging the Oregon Caves National Monument and extending federal “welfare” payments to counties.
Certainly it’s to be expected that extreme opinions will be heard, but it’s imperative they not control the conversation and our future.
I applaud Kitzhaber for having convened an O&C Lands Panel, reasonable people with differing but important priorities, to talk about these vital issues, advise him and craft a creative solution to managing the O&C lands. Although no specific proposal was produced, the governor must hold true to his principles and take a stand. My fear is that the distressed counties and communities in question will most assuredly drown while the task force and others continue to describe the water.
Failed federal forest policy is starving our communities. As Jennifer Phillippi, co-owner of Rough & Ready, said in a release announcing the closure of Josephine County’s last sawmill, “It’s like sitting in the grocery store not being able to eat while the produce rots around you.”
These communities can be saved only if citizens demand from their senators and representatives political courage and an end to the gridlock. But the time to act is now. The success or failure of these efforts rests squarely with the Senate. Make your voice heard. Contact your city council, board of commissioners, state senators and representatives and federal officials.
With a good faith effort, we Oregonians can have our cake (healthy forests) and eat it, too (a healthy economy).
Another Casualty of Federal Forest Management
Following is the text of a letter dated April 24 to Senators Wyden and Merkley from the Association of O&C Counties and signed by Columbia County Commissioner Hyde, who serves as vice president of the organization, as well as Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, president, and Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart, secretary/treasurer.
The line at the top of the letter reads: “Re: Another Casualty of Federal Forest Management.”
“Dear Senators Wyden and Merkley:
“By now you are undoubtedly aware of last week’s closure of Rough & Ready Lumber, the last mill operating in Josephine County. The layoff of Rough & Ready employees will be another blow to the Illinois Valley, an area already nearly in economic ruin.
“The closure message from Rough & Ready places responsibility for its demise squarely on the failure to responsibly manage federal timber resources… The Illinois Valley is surrounded in every direction by mile after mile after mile of federal timber, a virtual sea of productive timberland. And yet, the Rough & Ready mill died of starvation, for lack of an adequate timber supply from these same lands. It is an exasperating irony that environmental modeling recently completed for Governor Kitzhaber’s O&C Lands Panel projected that timber in and surrounding the Illinois Valley is likely to burn up due to wildfire over the next 50 years.
“Some of this intolerable situation is due to agency inaction. Traced to its roots, however, the failures in federal forest management are the fault of Congress. Congress has enacted so many layers of environmental protection of such bewildering complexity over the last 45 years that agencies find it impossible to do anything except talk and plan and study, but never actually implement anything on the ground. Judicial decisions generated by endless environmental litigation have completed the seamless web of obstacles, connecting the multitude of statutory prohibitions provided by Congress, each to the next, until the agencies are completely paralyzed. The victims have been the mills, their employees, and their communities, and eventually it will be the forests themselves.
“You both, but particularly Senator Wyden, are in a position to reverse the damage, but half measures will not suffice. It will require changes to environmental laws, which will be resisted by powerful lobbying organizations. We know you will need support from all friendly quarters. You will have the support of this Association for any legislative initiative that is likely to solve the federal timber management problems that have plagued Oregon communities.”