WASHINGTON – The Senate has agreed to keep compensating rural counties for a decline in federal timber payments because of environmental protections for the spotted owl, salmon and other species.
The Secure Rural Schools program has become a lifeline for rural communities, particularly in the West, that have suffered from a decline in timber harvests on federal lands.
An amendment sponsored by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana would distribute $346 million nationwide over the next year. The amendment cleared the Senate on Thursday on an 82-16 vote. It’s part of a larger transportation bill that is up for a vote next week and still needs approval from the House, too.
Rural county officials in Oregon were happy to see the Senate pass a one-year extension of federal timber payments on Thursday, but they know full well that they are not out of the woods on closing their budget gaps.
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson said that while the money would be welcome, Douglas County would still face a gap of $2 million to $3 million if the extension becomes law, forcing them to make more cuts or tap reserve funds.
Josephine County Commissioner Simon Hare said that if it passes, many voters are likely to think the county’s fiscal crisis is solved and won’t vote in favor of a four-year property tax increase being considered for the May ballot to raise $12 million a year for law enforcement.
“We are still going to need some other kind of funding to maintain current services,” Hare said.
Both commissioners said they still were hoping Congress would come through with a long-term fix based on increasing logging on national forests, which make up large expanses of rural counties in the West.
However, they recognized that a bill to do that from Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., faced a tough time in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., had been looking for a five-year extension of the payments but was happy with the one-year deal.
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