Oregon, feds need rational timber policy

The federal government taketh, so it has a duty to giveth as well.

That's the gist of why Oregon and other states deserve ongoing federal assistance to make up for the loss of timber taxes from federal land.

President Obama has included the state timber payments in his proposed 2012 federal budget, but at a lower level.

On Friday during Obama's visit to Hillsboro, Gov. John Kitzhaber appropriately thanked him for that support. However, the money — $328 million, with the largest percentage going to Oregon — still faces an uphill battle. Congress must find a way to pay for it, and lawmakers from nontimber states don't grasp the importance of the program — or of logging. They don't understand what it's like living and doing business in a state where 53 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.

Trees are a renewable resource, and Oregon produces some of the world's finest timber. For generations, proceeds from logged trees paid for law enforcement, schools, roads and other programs in timber-dependent counties. The wood-products industry provided family-wage jobs, and income taxes from those woodworkers and companies contributed mightily to the state budget.

Then came three changes: Automation made mills more efficient, dramatically reducing the work force. Federal environmental regulations, coupled with lawsuits, blocked much of the federal timberland from being harvested. Demand for wood products dropped with the economy and the advent of more nonwood building products.

Since 1990, federal timber harvests in Oregon have fallen more than 90 percent, according to the Cascade Policy Institute. Oregonians have witnessed the result, from unemployed timber workers to the near-elimination of sheriff patrols in some counties.

Meanwhile, we've also witnessed what happens when vast swaths of timberlands are left unmanaged. Pests may damage the trees; diseased trees and underbrush provide fuel for fires; wildfires scar thousands of acres; timber goes up in smoke, creating greenhouse gases.

The continuation of federal timber payments will provide some transitional relief for counties. But the ultimate solution is to develop a more rational approach to managing our federal timberlands, from increased logging to selective thinning to absolute protection of all old-growth trees.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's Eastside Forest Plan is one solution, having found support among environmental and timber groups. It deserves congressional approval.

Another idea is the Federal Forest Counties and Schools Stabilization Act, supported by the Association of O&C Counties: Sell 1.2 million acres of O&C timberland (Oregon and California Railroad lands). In return, another 1.2 million acres would be set aside for preservation. (The sale proceeds could help finance county timber payments.) Alternatives exist to timber payments. But Congress should continue them until it's willing to give Oregonians more control over the forests.

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