The decline of logging is now killing

 

 

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -