Rural counties need a longterm solution as federal program expires

Writing for The Oregonian, Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare and Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope recently weighed in on the future of the Secure Rural Schools program:

The Secure Rural Schools program, which provided funding to timber dependent communities hit hard by declining harvests, is often described as a “lifeline” to rural Oregon counties with forest lands under federal ownership. Yet the program expired in October 2015, resulting in a 90 percent revenue reduction to counties struggling to balance budgets and still provide minimum service.

The program’s expiration follows years of declining and uncertain payments. And overall, the subsidies have failed to address the underlying economic and social problems facing our counties. For our federal representatives, the only solution is to create good-paying jobs and generate revenue through science-based forest management.

Sixty percent of Oregon’s forests and timber lands are owned by the federal government. Many of our rural counties are dominated by lands that can’t be taxed, transferred, nor developed for private industry. Though recreation and tourism jobs have been created since the 1990’s, those jobs have not replaced the income that was earned in the woods and in the mills and generate little or no revenue to support county services. In fact, those jobs cost the government more than they bring in. Tourism and recreation significantly increase demand for law enforcement, road maintenance, search, rescue and emergency services on or near the federal lands. Because the federal lands are not contributing dollars to rural counties to provide these services, the burden is placed on the backs of county taxpayers.

Rural Oregon counties are at a fiscal cliff and are now being forced to make budget cuts unlike any that our citizens have seen before. Many rural Oregon counties don’t have funding to provide round-the-clock law enforcement. Public and mental health services have been severely cut back or returned to the state. Roads and infrastructure are deteriorating and libraries have closed. Because many of these public services are mandated under law, the state government may ultimately become responsible for providing those services. Salem can ill afford this responsibility.

Some believe the only solution is to increase property taxes, but there is limited appetite for higher taxes in counties and communities suffering from high unemployment and poverty. Many properties have reached the maximum allowable tax rate. Though another reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program is well-intended, it would be a mistake for our federal representatives to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. Rather than seeking to renew a full subsidies program like Secure Rural Schools, our representatives should focus on restoring rural Oregon’s economy, by increasing sustained yield timber harvests from federal forest lands. Rural county governments would strongly support a long-term solution that starts with short term bridge funding to sustain vital services, and then transitions to stable and predictable revenues from sustained yield timber harvests that supports good paying jobs and county services in our communities.

It’s a myth that logging on federal lands would have to be increased to unsustainable levels to restore the rural economy and reverse damaging cuts to local services. Higher levels of harvest can be achieved on our federal lands while still protecting the recovery of endangered species, providing clean water and fish habitat, ensuring landscape resiliency, supporting a wide range of recreational opportunities and increasing carbon storage. Forests are Oregon’s most abundant and renewable natural resource, and responsibly managing them is a big part of the solution to replacing lost federal subsidies to counties.

Rural counties need a longterm solution as federal program expires

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