U.S. Deparment of Agriculture announces timber payments

Rural Oregon counties can expect roughly the same amount as last year

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — More than $67 million in federal timber payments will soon be made to counties in Oregon, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced funding levels for the Secure Rural Schools program on Friday.

The Secure Rural Schools payments for fiscal year 2013 are at roughly the same level as last year. When combined with funds soon to be released by Department of the Interior, Oregon counties will receive more than $107 million total.

“This support is part of the Obama Administration’s long-standing commitment to rural communities, schools and American youth,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a prepared statement. “The Forest Service’s century-long support of America’s public schools and roads is one of many ways in which USDA contributes to rural communities becoming self-sustaining and prosperous.”

Locally, Deschutes County will receive $1.8 million, roughly the same amount as it did last year, according to U.S. Forest Service figures. Crook County will receive $1.67 million, down from $1.74 million in 2012, while Jefferson County’s payment drops from $570,000 to $521,000.

Congress first enacted the Secure Rural Schools program in 2000 to compensate heavily forested counties whose local economies were devastated by federal limitations placed on logging on public land.

The payments, designed to grow smaller over time, were meant to help portions of local budgets normally supported by the tax base, including spending on schools and roads, until the region could develop a non-timber-based economy.

Each time it extends the payments, Congress struggles to find a revenue source. This year’s funding came from the Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act, which aims to gradually move the U.S. out of the helium business and sell off its helium reserves.

In a joint news release, all of the members of Oregon’s congressional delegation except Rep. Earl Blumenauer, whose district is largely urban, praised Friday’s announcement.

“These payments are a lifeline for rural communities struggling to pay for law enforcement, roads, schools and other essential services, which is why I fought so hard to renew them for yet another year,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a prepared statement. “However, timber payments aren’t enough — these communities also need jobs in the woods. I am working to pass bills to get the harvest up and improve forest health on Oregon’s O&C lands and east of the Cascades.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. said, “We must ensure that Oregon’s rural communities have the resources they need to provide for their schools, roads, and public safety, and it is unacceptable that it took the federal government this long to get them to Oregon. Today’s payments will make a big difference in communities across our state, but they are no substitute for a long-term plan to grow our rural economy.”

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, said the payments offer short-term relief for rural counties, but the practice of making yearly timber payments is not sustainable.

“Rural communities need certainty and people need jobs. Our delegation has worked hard to fix broken federal forest policy to create jobs in the woods, improve forest health, and provide revenue for local communities,” he said. “We have a rare opportunity to change the law, and it’s time to get this done for Oregon.”

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com