Timber payment dreams fizzle

Hopes for a one-year extension of the federal timber payments program collapsed in the U.S. Congress Thursday, dealing a blow to Southern Oregon counties that depend on the money for law enforcement and roads.

"It looks like the one-year extension is dead in the water," said Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith. "That will create devastating effects for our neighboring counties."

Jackson County received $23 million when Congress and the president passed a one-year extension of the payments program, originally designed to offset the losses felt by counties from steep reductions in timber harvests.

Any chances of the Congress taking up the payments program, which benefits 600 counties throughout the country, appear to be dead in this budget cycle, said Smith.

Unlike neighboring counties, Jackson County has taken steps over the past two years to trim its budget enough that it shouldn't be too hard hit.

"We're in much better financial shape than we had anticipated," said Smith.

Lane County, which received $47 million annually in timber payments, announced it would lay off at least 200 workers because of the lack of an extension.

Jackson County went through its share of budget turmoil last year when it closed all 15 libraries for six months after Congress failed to renew the timber legislation. The libraries finally opened again with limited hours and the county outsourced their management to a private company.

Initially, the county thought it would have enough funding to keep libraries open for only two to three years. However, Smith said that the county's streamlined budget should enable it to keep operating libraries for a much longer period.

The county has the equivalent of 909 full-time employees, down from 1,089 in 2004, when officials began preparing for the expected loss of federal timber revenues.

Andrew Whelan, spokesman for Congressman Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said the failure to pass the timber payments in this budget cycle will deal a blow to Southern Oregon counties.

"It's really bad news," he said.

The lack of federal support will throw many counties into an emergency situation. Josephine County has six deputies to patrol the entire county during the night.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., proposed legislation Thursday that he hopes will ultimately encourage more timber production to boost the economies of hard-hit rural areas of the country.

The Oregon Forest Restoration and Old Growth Protection Act would halt cutting trees 120 years old and older in damp forest environments and 150 years and older in drier forests.

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

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