Rural communities deserve a federal solution assuring jobs, stable revenues

Commissioner Chris Brong explains why federal government should allow forest-dependent Skamania County a freer hand in the use of its resources:

SKAMANIA County is the most environmentally “protected” county in the West. But at what cost? Our unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, much higher than the 5.1 percent rate in King and Snohomish counties.

Our median family income is lower than the state average, while the rate of citizens living below the poverty line is higher. In the last three years, the county budget has been reduced by 51 percent, we have drained our reserves, and we can’t justifiably raise property taxes on citizens who can’t afford them.

Fifty-nine percent of our permanent and seasonal employees have been laid off. A permanent solution can’t come from the county seat in Stevenson or from Olympia; it must come from our leaders in Washington, D.C.

As a Skamania County commissioner, I’m charged with working with my fellow elected officials to operate and fund a county government that assures the safety and well being of its citizens.

We are mandated by the state to provide specific services to our residents and the tourists who visit our communities. Yet we have reached a point where these services will be further reduced and perhaps eliminated. Federal payments to forest communities under the Secure Rural Schools program were supposed to be a stopgap until counties could rebuild their economies. That is all but impossible here.

Eighty percent of Skamania County is the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with three wilderness areas and the Mount St. Helens National Monument. One half of the county is northern spotted-owl habitat; the owl population continues to decline though little of the timber promised in President Clinton’s plan over 20 years ago has been harvested. An additional 8 percent of the land is managed by state agencies, and another 10 percent is private timberlands in a deferred-harvest tax status.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area blankets 10 percent of both public and private lands with strict development regulations. Only 2 percent is private land subject to regular yearly property taxes, leaving very little private land to diversify the economy and expand the tax base.

We are in a region known for the most abundant and economically important tree species in the world, the Douglas fir. For 70 years the national forests were managed for the benefit of surrounding communities, with lands designated for timber production, wildlife diversity, recreation and fire prevention.

The forests once supported a thriving local workforce and infrastructure. Today, most of it is gone. The spotted-owl crisis, resulting litigation and layers of complex and conflicting federal policies put an end to a timber-based economy and “multiple-use management” of our forests.

The environmental lawsuits and regulations meant to protect the forests have instead led to widespread decay. Forest health has declined due to the lack of proactive management, and our forests have become much more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. Where once we had healthy forests, today we have crowded, single-age stands with very slow growth and providing very limited wildlife habitat.

The time for change is not when the next catastrophic “Yacolt” fire is raging through our communities, national forests and parks. Our forests and the nearby communities are in crisis.

Over the long term, the surrounding federal forests can and should be managed for both economic and environmental benefits.

All we are asking is the right to control our own destiny, create more family-wage jobs and provide stable and adequate funding for our schools and other public-mandated services.

Chris Brong, a former official with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a Skamania County commissioner.

Rural communities deserve a federal solution assuring jobs, stable revenues