Federal Subsidy Expires on Oregon's Timber Towns

Grace Bevan from Phoenix, Oregon i i

Grace Bevan from Phoenix, Ore., attends a rally to support Jackson County's libraries. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Grace Bevan from Phoenix, Oregon

Grace Bevan from Phoenix, Ore., attends a rally to support Jackson County's libraries.

Jeff Brady, NPR
Cut trees i i

Cut trees are stacked several stories high outside a lumber mill in Glendale, Ore. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Cut trees

Cut trees are stacked several stories high outside a lumber mill in Glendale, Ore.

Jeff Brady, NPR

Twenty years ago, it seemed as if every other vehicle on Oregon highways was a logging truck. Back then, a lot of trees came from vast expanses of federal land in this state. The land is public, so it can't be taxed. To make up for that, the government shared with counties the money it earned from timber sales. The arrangement worked well for decades, but environmental concerns have all but stopped logging in federal forests.

So, in 2000, Congress created a safety net. Payments based on past timber harvests in rural counties in 41 states would continue for six years. It was a $400 million-a-year federal subsidy. Oregon received the most — $150 million. The last checks were sent in December, and now the counties are facing huge budget holes.

In Medford recently, a bookish crowd gathered in support of libraries. Jackson County plans to shut all 15 of its libraries on April 7. A While children carried signs touting storytelling programs, Joann Avery and Barbara Allman carried a sign that read, "Reference Services."

"Well, I'm a retired librarian, so I have a particular interest in libraries providing reference services to people," Joann Avery explained.

"And I'm a writer and I need reference services," Barbara Allman said. "It's very important to my livelihood."

At a public hearing, commissioners agreed that libraries are important, but they pointed out that the same is true for law enforcement and human services, and there's not even enough money to pay for those. Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan told the crowd there are no good options.

"We could cut everything the county does besides public safety and we would still be in the situation of having to close the libraries," Jordan said.

In neighboring Josephine County, the sheriff says that without federal safety-net money, he can afford only one patrol car for an area the size of Rhode Island.

Just north in Douglas County, the road department and schools also will suffer. But you won't find Commissioner Doug Robertson sitting at his desk slashing budgets.

Instead, he's 2,000 miles away, walking the halls of Capitol Hill office buildings, lobbying members of Congress. He says that no one thought the situation would get this bad. He assumed that Republicans would take care of these rural, "red" counties in the waning hours of the last session.

"They did not," Robertson says. "Then we thought, 'Well, they'll certainly pick it up in the lame-duck session.' They did not. And then we thought, 'Everybody's beginning to understand the urgency, so when they come back into session in January they'll have a plan.' And they do not!"

That's because some members of Congress want to change the safety net program. They say Oregon is getting too much of the money, while counties there have some of the lowest local taxes in the country. Residents are accustomed to having services they don't pay for.

"These payments were intended as transition payments for these communities," says Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM). "They've been in transition now for 15 years, and I think the Congress has never been intending to just have a permanent federal subsidy."

The timber industry and its supporters would like to re-open the debate about logging on federal land, but there doesn't appear to be much appetite for that on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) says that Congress owes the counties some sort of compensation.

Counties in Southern Oregon will soon send out lay-off notices. Meanwhile, DeFazio and other members of the Oregon delegation hope to pass an emergency one-year extension of the safety net subsidy, then debate a permanent solution later.

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