Note: This opinion piece could have been written, almost word for word, by our own county commissioners and our NWAF! group.
By Tim Freeman, Simon Hare and Craig Pope
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.