Extension of timber payments handled with care

Jackson County could receive $4.5 million after Congress enacted a one-year extension of federal timber payments Friday.

Roughly $346 million will be distributed to 700 rural counties in 41 states, including most counties in Southern Oregon.

Jackson County Commissioner Don Skundrick said this county has weathered the economic storm better than Josephine, Curry, Lane and Klamath counties.

Still, Jackson County dipped into its reserves to the tune of $6 million this year.

Although commissioners haven't decided what they will do with the one-year extension, Skundrick said it likely won't be used on services the county provides.

"The standard rule with one-time money is stick it in the bank," he said.

After their vote Friday, congressional leaders said their focus will shift to finding a long-term solution to the issue of generating more revenue for counties dominated by federal lands.

Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden says supporters of a bill that would increase logging on the so-called O&C lands in Western Oregon are still working to get a favorable rating for it from the Congressional Budget Office, which is needed before it can come to the House floor for a vote.

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden says he does not yet know what the solution will look like, but he plans to talk about the issue with people in timber country.

Counties in Southern Oregon have seen timber dollars dwindle over the years, forcing cutbacks in law enforcement and other county services.

The federal government set up the timber payment program to help counties that historically were dependent on logging for their economic vitality. Environmental restrictions have put many of the federal forests off limits to logging.

Skundrick said Jackson County has built up enough reserves to last another three to four years. But, he said, if the county doesn't see revenues increase and the inflation rate stays about the same, cuts in services could be on the horizon within two years.

"We're not going to spend down to zero," he said.

Skundrick said he welcomes the extra money from the federal government, but is worried about the message sent to taxpayers in counties struggling to pay the bills.

The taxpayers, he said, "will say I told you so. The feds rode in on a white horse and saved us again."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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