By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
January 27, 2007
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., is raising a “bit of a ruckus” on the House floor in hopes of jump-starting a federal funding program for rural counties.
He is using a series of one-minute speeches to focus the attention of his peers on the “grim consequences” of not reauthorizing the Secure Rural Roads and Community Self-Determination Act. Walden’s methodology is to name one of the 18 affected counties in his Second Congressional District — and what that area stands to lose.
“I want my fellow (House) members to hear about the specific and rather unpleasant choices that counties will be faced with should this funding not be renewed,” he said.
“Most important, I want to remind the Congress time and again that the federal government should not break its commitment to the people who live near our national forests.”
On Feb. 6, Walden will take the podium to outline that 61 percent of Hood River County’s land base is comprised of national forest. So, if the federal government doesn’t act soon, its communities stand to lose $2.9 million that is essential to maintain roads and operate schools.
Each day, he is reiterating that the government has an obligation to fulfill. Jackson County tops Walden’s list with a potential loss of $24.3 million, the first numbers he provided to the House on Jan. 18.
His goal is to have the county payments law extended for seven more years. He said the Act expired in December and a grim scenario faces 4,400 school districts in 615 counties in 39 states if that essential funding is severed.
Walden and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., filed the reauthorization bill in early January but it has not yet made any movement forward.
Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether applauds Walden’s efforts. He believes the legislator’s unusual way of delivering the message is likely to pay off in the end.
“It’s going to get the attention of his colleagues in the House. I hope that they understand the importance of this funding,” said Meriwether.
Federal laws of 1908 and 1937 specified that the government share harvest receipts from national forests with counties. The purpose was to offset the loss of taxes with a land base that included federal property. Rural counties were allotted 25 percent of the U.S. Forest Service receipts and 50 percent of Bureau of Land Management receipts. These payments were dedicated primarily to road upkeep and operation.
However, by the mid- to late 1990s, environmental regulations had drastically reduced harvest levels. And payments to counties dropped by more than 70 percent nationwide.
In 2000, Walden was the only Oregon member of the House to co-sponsor the “county payments” law. That money was intended to correct the imbalance for six years and provide rural areas with time to transition into another type of industry. The formula for payments was established on harvest levels during three high years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Meriwether said it is proving difficult for rural counties to make the economic adjustment and more time is needed.
Walden said he hopes to give Hood River County, where he resides, and the other 17 affected Oregon counties with at least seven more years to work toward that transition.