A tie that binds: county income and timber

  • Peg Reagan wants to "decouple" county coffers from federal timber contracts

  Peg Reagan wasn't a typical Western county commissioner. For starters, she's an environmentalist.


"I was in the minority on any land-use issue," she says of her four-year term on the Curry County Commission in southwestern Oregon.


After leaving office in 1995, she decided it was time for the minority to get organized. She founded the nonprofit Conservation Leaders Network, a grassroots campaign to increase county support for environmental issues.


Now, her group is joining an effort to break the connection between county coffers and federal timber contracts, a plan known as "decoupling." Environmental groups say decoupling would undercut county incentives to support public-lands logging, and the Forest Service and an Oregon congressman say it's a way to protect counties from a timber-production "roller coaster." But Reagan's former colleagues don't agree.


In the past, the Forest Service sent about one-quarter of its logging receipts to timber counties, earmarking the money for roads and public schools. Although the annual windfall was erratic, it often made up more than half of county budgets, helping to cement local support for bigger and bigger logging operations.


Things changed for the Northwest in 1993, when Congress approved the Northwest Forest Plan and timber production in the region dropped by 80 percent. The plan temporarily stabilized the counties' yearly payments, giving them 10 years' respite from the effects of the logging downturn. Reagan, who was a county commissioner at the time, thought the change was positive. "It was much better for counties to know how much revenue was coming to them," she says.


If the Forest Service payments could be stabilized indefinitely, she says, timber-producing counties would be able to depend on a constant source of income, and local officials might not be so enthusiastic about unsustainable logging on federal lands.


Reagan isn't the only one who thinks permanent, nationwide decoupling is a good idea. "Clear-cuts for kids don't make a whole lot of sense," says Amelia Jenkins, a forest economist from the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and a former staffer at the American Lands Alliance.


Tryg Sletteland of the Oregon-based Pacific Rivers Council, an environmental group lending support to the effort, says, "If you're trying to change federal land management, it's going to be a lot easier when the (local) politics aren't stacked against you." Most counties would still want the jobs and tax revenues associated with logging, he says, but decoupling would get rid of the direct link between the size of the timber harvest and the size of federal payments.


The Forest Service has proposed a decoupling plan in its 1999 budget request, asking for counties to receive Treasury payments instead of timber dollars. "We want to stop the roller coaster and stabilize these payments," says Chris Woods, spokesman for Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. "Why should the wealthiest country in the world, with one of the highest standards of living in the world, be funding the education of rural schoolkids on the back of the federal timber program?"


Even a congressman from the heart of timber country has signed on to the effort. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D, has introduced a bill (H.R. 4267) similar to the Forest Service's request, but it has been "left in the lurch" by this year's Congress, says DeFazio spokesman Jeff Stier. Decoupling "is hugely important for counties in our district," he says. "It's silly for counties to tie their fortunes to the hope that we're going to go back in time in terms of forest management. That's just not in the cards."


With the support of environmental groups such as the Portland-based Oregon Natural Resources Council and the American Lands Alliance, the Conservation Leaders Network has recently started drumming up county officials' support for a nationwide decoupling plan. Two timber counties in Oregon have expressed support during the last several weeks, and the group will soon extend its efforts to other states.


Reagan thinks county-level endorsement of decoupling is the most important piece of the puzzle. "Local elected officials have more clout than any environmental activist or environmental group," she says.


But many county officials are still suspicious of the idea, fearing they would lose their sizable sway with federal agencies. "We'd rather stay involved with the process of managing the timber," says Gordon Roth, a Coos County, Ore., commissioner. "Counties have a long-standing cooperative arrangement with the Forest Service, and these lands provide jobs for our constituents."


The National Association of Counties wants to see some major changes made to the Forest Service proposal, including an "either/or" clause that would establish a minimum annual payment but allow counties to cash in on big harvests.


And others worry that stabilized payments would be even less dependable than a cut of federal timber revenues. Republican Sen. Larry Craig from Idaho has opposed the idea, arguing that counties would have to rely on the long-term goodwill of Congress - a risky proposition at best.


The push for decoupling "is still in its early stages," admits Tryg Sletteland. "But this is something that makes obvious sense. This is an idea whose time is coming."


* Michelle Nijhuis





Michelle Nijhuis is an HCN staff reporter.





You can contact ...


* Conservation Leaders Network, 541/247-8079;


* Rep. Peter DeFazio, 202/225-6416;


* Sen. Larry Craig, 202/224-2752.
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