A real solution

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board February 08, 2012 05:49 pm

So now we have dueling prescriptions to cure the financial malaise that afflicts 18 counties in Western and Southern Oregon.

First came the plan offered by three Oregon congressman — Democrats Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio, and Republican Greg Walden.

Although the trio has yet to unveil details, their basic idea is to increase logging on about half of the federal forests in those counties, while protecting the rest, including remaining old growth stands, from cutting.

Revenue from the additional logging would help counties balance their budget.

A coalition of environmental groups last week countered the lawmakers' proposal with a three-pronged approach:

• Nearly triple the tax charged to private property owners who cut timber on their land, and send the revenue to the counties

• Transfer 2.6 million acres of public land west of the Cascades from the BLM to the U.S. Forest Service, and divert the resulting administrative cost savings to the counties

• Ask voters in the affected counties to boost their property tax rates

Proponents of this three-part strategy contend that each part  would raise about one-third of the estimated $110 million per year that the 18 counties need to balance their budgets.

Well, we admire optimism.

But realism rules the day, and the three-part approach is deficient in that quality.

Each of the three money-raising proposals has serious, if not certainly fatal, flaws.

Tripling the harvest tax might sound like a simple way to boost revenue. Trouble is, with lumber prices stuck in a deep rut, there's no great incentive for private forest owners to cut. Slashing their profit margin would reduce logging levels still more — far enough, potentially, to offset the financial benefit of the tax hike.

The second idea — enriching county coffers by shifting management of forests from one federal agency to another — is sketchier still.

Officials from the Forest Service, the agency that's supposed to be so much thriftier than its counterpart, the BLM, said the purported cost savings are fantasy.

Lastly there is the matter of property tax rates.

It's true that some of the 18 counties have rates well below the state average. Curry County, which is in the most dire straits, has the second-lowest rate among Oregon's 36 counties, at 60 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Yet even if the case can be made that such rates are artificially low, it's unlikely that a majority of voters in any county would agree to boost their own bills.

Besides which, many of those 18 counties also have weak economies. The low tax rates undoubtedly have allowed some residents to keep their properties — and keep paying their tax bills.

By contrast, the side effects of the Schrader-DeFazio-Walden plan are likely to be economically beneficial rather than detrimental.

The modest increase in logging — claims that the congressmen's proposal amounts to a return to 1980s-style, unsustainable clear-cutting are not realistic — will unleash the multiplier effect on the counties' economies.

It's plausible that the increased revenue from logging — the counties get 25 percent — will actually be less beneficial than what the counties would realize from the associated economic activity.

A hand-up, to borrow a cliché rather than a handout.