Law aimed at helping Northwest counties has spread
RESERVE, N.M. – A federal program that began as a safety net for Pacific Northwest logging communities hard-hit by battles over the spotted owl in the 1990s has morphed into a sprawling entitlement – one that ships vast amounts of money to states with little or no historic connection to timber, an analysis by the Associated Press shows.
Nicknamed “county payments,” the timber program was supposed to assist counties shortchanged when national forests limited logging to protect the northern spotted owl and other endangered species.
Since becoming law in 2000, the program has distributed more than $3 billion to 700 counties in 41 states with national forests and helped fund public facilities such as schools, libraries and jails. Several Eastern Washington and North Idaho counties have benefited from the program.
The federal largesse initially focused on a handful of Western states, with Oregon alone receiving nearly $2 billion.
Spending of that magnitude, though, sparked a new timber war – this one among politicians eager to get their hands on some of the logging money.
A four-year renewal of the law, passed last year, authorizes an additional $1.6 billion for the program through 2011 and shifts substantial sums to states where the spotted owl never flew. While money initially was based on historic logging levels, now any state with federal forests – even those with no history of logging – is eligible for millions in Forest Service dollars.
Doling out all that taxpayer money is based less on logging losses than on the powerful reality of political clout. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is among the program’s strongest backers.
The biggest winner under the renewal is, in fact, Nevada, where payments jumped by 1,132 percent. Reid called the timber program a personal priority that supports “the lifeblood of communities all across America, and particularly in the West.”
In Catron County, the part of western New Mexico where Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch gang once holed up, the program distributes the highest per-capita payment in the nation – $1,883 per person.
Pioneers settled the remote frontier town of Reserve, N.M., more than a century ago to log ponderosa pine. By the late 1980s, timber production had dwindled, and in 1990 the town’s sole remaining mill shut down.
The county is larger than three Eastern states, yet it has fewer than 3,500 residents. The public high school in Reserve, the county seat, has just five seniors. “We have more elk than we do people,” said longtime resident Jim Kellar.
Of much more important note: New Mexico’s two senators served as chairman and ranking Republican on the Senate committee that rewrote the timber payments formula. New Mexico’s increase under the new formula was 692 percent.
The original timber payments law, formally known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, was the result of years of effort by Northwest lawmakers, primarily Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. Eager to plug a budget gap caused by the timber industry’s steep decline, Wyden and Craig created a substitute revenue stream to pay rural counties that no longer could depend on revenue from logging in federal forests.
Five Western states – Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho and Montana – pocketed more than 80 percent of the total timber payments from 2000 to 2007. All are traditional timber producers where huge swaths of land are owned by the federal government.
Many Oregon counties receive more money annually from county payments than from timber sales during all but the peak logging years of the late 1980s.
Under the renewal, included as a sweetener in the $700 billion financial bailout program, the five Western states saw their share of the timber money drop to about 62 percent in the first year, with further drops scheduled in each of the next three years.
The reason? Politics.
Reid was among four powerful Western Democrats who shepherded the new timber law, which he and others have touted as an accomplishment of the Democrat-led Congress. Other key backers include Wyden and Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Max Baucus, D-Mont. Bingaman chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while Baucus heads the Senate Finance panel.
Baucus boasted that he “led the charge” to renew the timber program, which he called a vital lifeline to his rural state. The new formula more than doubles payments to Montana and will bring an estimated $111 million to the state over four years.
“Without the dollars the program provides, rural schools, roadways and even emergency services would be woefully underfunded,” Baucus said.
Other states that benefit from the change include Utah, which received a 636 percent increase; Alaska (528 percent); Kentucky (303 percent); Tennessee (188 percent); Colorado (184 percent); North Carolina and Virginia (150 percent each).
Timber was harvested in some of these states in the 1980s – the basis for the original spending formula – but at far lower levels than the Pacific Northwest. The new formula, however, takes into account national forest acreage in each state and county, regardless of historical timber production, and includes an adjustment based on per capita income and other factors.
In Catron County, N.M., residents said the additional money is overdue and badly needed. The county got about $6.5 million this year, up from $735,000 under the old law – a 779 percent increase. More than 70 percent of land in the county is owned by the federal government.
Residents say efforts to limit grazing and logging on federal land to protect endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl, a relative of the northern spotted owl, hurt their way of life.
Since the early 1990s, after the mill closure put 175 people out of work, the high school in Reserve has lost 100 students and many programs. Some 23 percent of county residents live below the poverty level, and a school bond measure hasn’t passed since 1989.
“We are a very economically depressed community,” said Kellar, 58, who has taken over the shuttered timber mill with a partner in hopes of resparking the industry. K&B Timberworks Inc. now has multiple contracts for ponderosa pine beams, but Kellar said the mill’s future depends on federal contracts to thin the forest for wildfire prevention – funded in part by the Secure Rural Schools law.
“Could we exist without it? Yes. It would be difficult, though,” Kellar said.
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