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The View from Oregon: Forests, Public Finances and Livability

October 25, 2011

Early in July 2011, Lane County, Oregon sheriff Tom Turner announced the pending cut of 84 jail beds, the loss of 24-hour patrols in much of rural Lane County and the likely need for “self reporting” of crimes. Citizens will soon have to fill out a form to  notify the sheriff that their  property has been stolen. In response to questioning, Turner responded, “there just isn’t any money.”

Several decades ago, then Oregon Governor Tom McCall campaigned for “livability” in Oregon. Those of us who remember Gov. McCall also remember a time when Western Oregon had excellent public schools, good roads and professional emergency personnel with adequate resources to respond to citizens in trouble.

What happened? First, let’s look back over a half century ago, when Western Oregon Counties ceded ownership rights of the bankrupt Oregon and California (O&C) railroad to the federal government. This transfer was made under an agreement that in lieu of lost property taxes which O&C had been paying, the forestlands owned by the company would be transferred to the government and would then be managed sustainably and perpetually for timber resources. The Bureau of Land Management would grow and harvest timber, sharing the proceeds with the counties to help them fund critical public services for the general population. The counties responded in kind by returning half of the money to the BLM to replant and grow trees for the future.

This worked very well for many years, and the O&C lands were well taken care of. In fact, far more timber is present on these lands today than at the inception of the program in 1937. Forests were harvested and replanted, windblown timber was recovered and used to make lumber, burned forests were rehabilitated. But another extraordinary benefit resulted: family wage jobs were created, commerce and economy flourished, and basic public services were funded. Lane County and many other counties across the West received timber payments, or a royalty shared by the federal government in lieu of property taxes that would have been paid if these same lands were held as private property.

Most have heard about the 1990 listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species and the Northwest Forest Plan, which led to 90 percent reductions in Federal timber harvests in Western Oregon. In an effort to avoid economic and social catastrophe in counties like Oregon’s Lane, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Act of 2000. This public assistance program was enacted and funded by Congress to provide a “safety net” once these timber resources were no longer utilized to sustainably fund basic services.

As the Federal deficit balloons, however, Congress is “tightening the belt.” This assistance is now winding down and the counties that rely on this source of funding now face dire straits. The “safety net” share for Lane County, and many others, has dwindled year by year, and prospects for the future look bleak.

As many counties in the West contemplate drastic service reductions, it strikes many of us as unnecessary. The Federal Government owns over half of Oregon’s forests. From O&C lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, only 18 percent of the total annual growth is harvested. Proactive and creative leadership from County, State and Federal officials can avert this slow motion disaster. We can have healthy, productive forests, clean water and habitat for fish and wildlife along with the crucial economic benefits sorely needed by our community. We need to open portions of our O&C forests for responsible and renewable timber harvest to cut, plant and grow trees.

Yes, anti-forestry activists will argue that ancient forests are endangered, that some logs from private lands are exported to Asia, that replanted trees aren’t forests, that there is no demand for lumber because of the poor economy, that dead trees are more valuable as habitat, that all timber interests are selfish multi-national corporations. When a county doesn’t have the resources to fully fund a police force or keep criminals in jails, when the quality of the public school system grows worse every year, all of these arguments begin to seem irrelevant to the citizens who live there. They confuse the issue and cloud the truth.

The truth is simply this: it’s time for Congress to direct the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service to once again actively practice forestry on these public lands. If the agencies prepare and offer timber for sale in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner in predictable quantities, the forest products industry will respond. Oregon’s forest industry is largely “home grown.” With very few exceptions, these mills are owned and managed by families who are neighbors and are dedicated to the long-term well being of our communities. They will buy the timber, harvest it to mill valuable building products, provide family wage jobs and reinvest in technology that will improve the viability of their businesses. Moreover, counties will once again have a steady, predictable and reliable source of public service funding to protect and educate the citizenry and restore former Governor Tom McCall’s vision of Western Oregon as a “livable” place to be.




Thanks for the history. School districts are complaining about the lack of funds and don’t acknowledge multiple vacant industrial lots within their tax districts where mills once stood.




I agree 100% could you send that letter with california,montana,washington,idaho, included, i’ve been in this industry for 40 + years, loggers have given life and limb makeing a living an practiceing forrestry only to have a a bunch of old hippies with nothing better to do protest logging. they are right in line with the white house and all the politics in both parties.

jake g


james bryan


If our economy implodes and we all are jobless and hungry, i would hope there are vast stands of healthy forests remaining. If you believe that sustainable forestry is to cut and regrow then visit a clear cut, or a clear cut from years ago. What you will find are stumps covered in blackberries and scotch broom, piles of limbs and roads cut thru stream banks. What you will not find are beautiful stands of giant, oxygen producing trees because as noted, they are gone. And if we are talking oldgrowth, virgin forest logging, then this is ever more true. Visit google earth maps to see just how much has been cut over the years. For more evidence, visit the port of Longview, WA to see the majority of Oregon’s harvested trees shipped whole (no saw mill jobs) to China and Japan. When reading propaganda produced by lobbyist groups like FOREST TO MARKET beware. Lastly, the next time you get out to a forest to see wild native plants and animals living in a healthy watershed then thank a tree hugger, as these people have giving much and lost more helping nature’s fight for survival against those who support wielding chainsaws claiming this is best for rural counties.

james bryan

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