Bill allowing more logging on Oregon public lands advances

ROSEBURG, Ore. - A Congress not known for reaching agreement is set to vote on a possible solution to the budget problems plaguing Oregon's timber counties.

Oregon counties that contain large tracts of public land managed by the federal government traditionally shared in the revenues from timber sales. The federal government does not pay property taxes.

But as timber sales dwindled, so have county budgets for roads, schools and law enforcement.

The so-called Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act - initially known as the Craig-Wyden Bill after its sponors, Senators Larry Craig of Idaho and Ron Wyden of Oregon - helped fill the gap with direct payments from the federal treasury in lieu of timber revenues.

But the act ran its course, and Congress has been reluctant to renew support.

The result: Oregon counties asking voters for more property tax money - or contemplating bankruptcy.

"It's about as grim as '82," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "In fact, even more so for the more rural counties in my district because there's no end in sight."

A provision in HR 1526: Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act could rescue county budgets by increasing timber production while protecting old growth.

"We are going to get to a point that is sustainable over the longer term," DeFazio said, "but as I said, not good old days revenues. More like revenues we got three years ago."

Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson testified in Washington, D.C., about the bill's importance last April.

He said the bill is vital for the financial health of counties like his.

"The passage of this act would put us on a sustainable basis in terms of county revenues and resources for the industry," Robertson said.

Environmental groups like Oregon Wild oppose the bill, saying they worry it will lead to out of control timber harvesting throughout the state.

A vote in the House could happen as early as next month.

If approved, Sen. Wyden will take it up in the Senate.