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Feds move to turn national eye on rural county plight

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

February 14, 2007

Three members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation took drastic action on Monday to focus government attention on the plight of counties hurt by cutbacks in federal logging.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., dominated the U.S. Senate floor on Feb. 12 with a four-hour speech on the critical need for the “county payments” law. He read from a 55-page prepared statement and then addressed the potential loss of jobs, school programs and public safety services.

Smith wanted to drive home the point that, without at least a one-year extension of the program, he would be voting against a stopgap spending bill.

“This is a very important fight, a fight we will continue. It is imperative we succeed so that our rural, timber-dependent counties have the funding they have traditionally received from county payments,” said Smith. “It is vital to having schools open, sheriff’s departments staffed and roads paved. We will keep this fight up until we win, it’s just that simple.”

Two weeks ago, Rep. Greg Walden voted against the House resolution to continue government funding. Although, like Smith, he was not able to block its passage — or gain an amendment — he intends to stay engaged in the battle. Walden is hopeful that the combined efforts of Northwest officials are slowly gaining ground. His hope is fueled by the fact that he was able to add 94 names of House leaders to the petition for a one-year extension of the program.

And the bill that he and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., authored to extend county payments for seven more years now has 114 bipartisan co-sponsors. Smith and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have introduced an almost identical version of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act that they are attempting to move through the Senate.

“Our bipartisan effort in the House has been fighting tooth and nail for three years to renew the county payments program. It’s outrageous that the federal government is walking away from its promise to the forested counties and rural schools across Oregon,” said Walden. “It’s high time the federal government keeps its word to rural Oregon, and I will continue to do everything in my power to see that it does.”

On Monday evening, he and DeFazio, joined by other members of the House, reserved one hour on the floor to underscore the “dire consequences” of lapsed funding. Walden has already become a visible figure behind the podium with a series of one-minute speeches about the potential economic devastation awaiting rural counties.

On Thursday, he will wrap up 18 days of brief glimpses into the losses that 18 of the 20 counties in his Second Congressional District will face without an extension of the “safety net.”

For example, Hood River County has 61 percent of its land mass within the Mount Hood National Forest boundaries. In December, the funding lapsed from the 2000 bill and the local county stands to lose $2.9 million for essential services.

The original county payments law, approved in 2000, has pumped more than $2 billion into Oregon and other states hurt by environmental regulations that severely restricted logging in the 1990s.

According to a report issued by Smith, Oregon received more than $129 million of the $385 million distributed nationally last year by the U.S. Forest Service. The second-place recipient was California with $66 million. Washington State was third at $42 million and Idaho got about $21 million.

Smith, Walden and DeFazio plan to continue emphasizing the point that the federal government needs to fulfill its obligation to rural counties.

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.

However, harvest levels had dropped dramatically in the mid- to late-1990s, due to a series of federal policies to protect endangered species.

In 2000, Northwest officials pursued the first county payments law to correct that imbalance. The formula for payouts was based on timber receipts during three high years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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