Editorial: Governor's timber panel leaves problem unsolved

Published Feb 8, 2013 at 04:00AM

Some of Oregon’s most struggling Western counties are no closer to a solution to their financial problems. The 18 so-called O&C Railroad Company counties have taken it on the financial chin in recent years. As timber harvests have dwindled, so have their revenues, and in the hardest-hit counties, government has been cut.

The most recent failure came this week from a panel formed by Gov. John Kitzhaber’s office. The special panel created to find answers to the problem was unable to reach consensus on the issue. The 14-member panel included timber industry executives, environmentalists and representatives from the counties hardest hit by the timber payment decline.

The O&C Act of 1937 set aside roughly 2.4 million acres of federal forests in the 18 counties for the counties’ financial benefit. The lands were originally given to the O&C Railroad Company by the government in 1860s; when land sales failed to materialize, the government reclaimed the land in 1916. The 1937 act was passed to compensate the counties for loss of property taxes and private, developable land. It gives 50 percent of timber receipts from the land to the counties.

The law worked well when timber was being harvested in great enough amounts to balance the counties’ budgets. Today, when there’s almost no timber being harvested, not so much. And nothing else has filled the gap.

That the Kitzhaber panel failed to come up with answers palatable to all probably should have been expected. The various parties could not agree on such things as streamside protection and the actual volume of timber that should be cut, according to The Oregonian newspaper, and there was a feeling among some members that county residents aren’t doing enough for themselves through property tax payments.

In the end, the failure means the problem is back in the lap of Congress, where even among members of the Oregon delegation there has been little agreement on a potential solution. Lack of consensus on the state level makes the task even more difficult.

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