If the connection between logging and closing libraries isn’t clear to you, then you don’t live in Oregon. Here, the connection is the stuff of crisis, the subject of daily news stories and of increasingly desperate political maneuvering. It is a crisis that reveals much about changing expectations and attitudes concerning government services, taxes and public-land management in the West.
In Oregon, over half of all land is in the hands of the federal government, primarily the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. This situation is repeated throughout the West: For example, publicly owned lands cover 48 percent of Arizona, 50 percent of Idaho, 57 percent of Utah, and 84 percent of Nevada. Since federal land can’t be taxed, counties with high percentages of federal land have reduced tax bases, making it a challenge to fund public services.
For almost 90 years, this problem was resolved in Oregon and other Western states by a deal with the federal government, whereby rural counties received a share of the revenues generated by logging on federal land. It was an abundant income stream, and it supported excellent schools and libraries, while allowing property tax rates to remain low.
In the 1990s, that system broke down. Logging on federal land fell sharply, partly due to environmental regulations built into the Northwest Forest Plan, and partly due to the changing economics of the timber industry. At the same time, the Western taxpayer revolt was in full swing, resulting in tight restrictions on local governments’ ability to raise revenue.
By 2000, timber-dependent counties in Oregon and throughout the West were facing a full-blown funding crisis. In response, Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act to provide transitional assistance to these communities. Oregon counties, with the greatest loss in timber receipts, received the lion’s share of the grants -- over $220 million per year. The funding was never intended to be a permanent, however, and it expired in September 2006. Efforts by Oregon’s congressional delegation to pass an extension of the law have so far failed.
The Bush administration has proposed its own solution, which would pay for a four-year extension of county payments “through the sale of identified national forest system lands,” says the Forest Service. But Western legislators have declared this privatization scheme — one of several the Bush administration has proposed — as “dead on arrival.” So whether or not a last-minute deal is made to extend federal payments, it seems clear that rural counties face a future without this source of income.
The immediate consequences for county budgets and public services will be catastrophic. Coos County, on the Oregon coast, will lose over half of its discretionary budget. Josephine County will be reduced to one sheriff vehicle to patrol an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. Jackson County, where I live, will completely shut down each of its 15 libraries.
It is tempting to blame this crisis on over-zealous environmentalists, and indeed, local newspapers are full of letters-to-the-editor doing just that. Just return logging to 1980s levels, the writers declare, and our problems would be solved. This ignores the unsustainable intensity of that logging, as well as drastic changes in the timber industry in the past 15 years. It also avoids taking a hard look at our own responsibilities as citizens and taxpayers.
According to the Tax Foundation, Oregon ranks 36th among the 50 states in per capita total tax burden. Residents of Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and Idaho, for example, all pay more. Oregon has never had a state sales tax, and through the 1990s, voters passed several measures limiting property taxes.
There was little planning, at either the state or county level, for how to adapt to the end of the federal “transitional payments” in 2006, even though many formerly timber-dependent counties in Oregon have successfully made the transition to more diversified economies. My county, for example, is now a regional center for retail and health care services, and is a magnet for retirees. Many of our new residents cannot imagine a county without libraries.
Rural counties in Oregon and throughout the West face some big decisions. We must decide what level of public services — police, schools and libraries, among others — we consider essential. Then, with traditional Western self-reliance, we must pay for those services. With few exceptions, we have the means. The question is, do we have the will?
Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.
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