In Washington D.C. the growing debate over reforming federal forest policies is focused on improving forest health and providing a short-term extension of timber payments to county governments. These issues are important, but the primary goal of any federal forest legislation should be to promote forest management as a means to increasing employment and fighting poverty in our distressed, timber-dependent rural communities.
According to statistics from the Robert Wood Foundation, timber-dependent rural counties rank higher in “unhealthy” factors such as poor health, premature death and teen pregnancy. Another report from Children First for Oregon suggests that rural counties tend to have lower median family incomes and the highest rates of childhood poverty compared to urbanized communities.
Josephine County in Southern Oregon’s timber country offers a compelling case study for congressional action. In the Robert Wood Foundation health rankings, the county ranked high in poor physical and mental health, inadequate social support and other negative factors. Unfortunately for this community, the county’s condition may get worse before they get better.
In April, the county’s last remaining sawmill in Cave Junction announced it was closing and eliminating 85 family-wage jobs. As one of the community’s largest employers, the mill’s closure will have a devastating impact on local residents. Though the mill is surrounded by abundant federal forests, the owner blamed the mill’s closure on the company’s inability to acquire logs due to current federal forest policies and endless litigation.
Without a vibrant timber industry, Josephine County has struggled to diversify its economy. Tourism and an influx of retirees have failed to generate enough jobs to replace the thousands of timber jobs that have been lost over the past 25 years. With an 11.4 percent unemployment rate and a median family income of $38,000, the county lacks a strong tax base to sustain critical government services.
The problem is compounded by the fact the federal government owns 67 percent of the county’s land but pays no income taxes to support the community. Though Washington D.C. has traditionally provided payments to replace revenues lost from the lack of timber harvests, these payments have decreased and may be eliminated altogether.
The results for Josephine County’s law enforcement community have been disastrous. The Sheriff’s office has been forced to reduce patrols to an eight-hour shift each workday, leaving residents without protection when deputies are off the road. The District Attorney’s office has cut their case filings in half. Jail beds have been slashed and the county’s juvenile justice system has closed altogether. In many cases, burglars targeting homes and businesses are allowed to walk free shortly after they’ve been caught.
It’s impossible for a community to be vibrant and healthy when it suffers high unemployment and lacks fundamental services such as law enforcement. Josephine County is not the only timber-dependent county that is in crisis. Eco-tourism has failed to lift these communities out of poverty, as environmentalists had promised when entire forests were shut down to timber harvests. These forests will never return to the harvest levels of the past, but it’s time for Congress to reform its failed policies and allow more rural citizens to return to working in the woods. The health and well-being of many Americans are depending on it.