Oregon's congressional delegation and Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a united plan to extend county payments to Oregon beleaguered timber counties.
Several southern Oregon counties have recently warned the governor's office that they could be facing bankruptcy without action to extend the county payments program, known as the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act, which requires the federal government to reimburse counties for federally owned timber land that cannot be sold.
Under the proposed legislation, the payments would continue for at least another five years, with reductions in the size over each year.
That includes Mt. Hood National Forest, which is a significant portion of Hood River County forestland.
"Our county is 70 percent forest," Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether said. He was unsure of exactly how much was inside the national forest, but estimated it to be "well over half" in comments in August.
The cuts to Hood River County would be substantial without an extension of the payments, but would not be nearly as dramatic as those facing Douglas and Lane counties, which currently receive around $35 million each in annual payments and would see their revenue plunge to around $7 million by 2017 when the payments end, according to Headwater Economics, a Bozeman, Mont., research firm.
"This gives us breathing room to figure out a long term solution on the ground," said a spokesman for Gov. Kitzhaber's office.
The plan received bi-partisan support across the delegation and legislation is expected to be introduced next week by Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D- NM).
"While passage of this legislation is not guaranteed, gaining Chairman Bingaman's support is an important step in our effort to get the job done. Part of that effort includes educating our colleagues in Congress on the unique challenges facing a state where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land -- as well as the historic commitment the federal government made to those communities," the Oregon delegation said in statement. "Our unified effort underscores how essential it is for Congress and the administration to honor that commitment and Oregonians can count on us to continue to work together to get the job done."
The Secure Rural Schools Act technically expired last Friday, and without renewal the last Federal payments would be made to counties in December.