County commitment

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board February 22, 2012 10:42 am

The roster of lawmakers and private groups suggesting ways to help rural counties across the West, including Baker County in some cases, is getting sort of crowded.

We're not especially impressed with any of these strategies.

The basic fiscal problem is similar among the counties.

All have significant amounts of federal land within their borders.

The downside of this geographic arrangement is that the feds don't pay property taxes.

But for decades the upside —  counties received a share of revenue from timber sales on the federal forests — more than offset the loss of potential tax dollars.

That advantage pretty much disappeared when the pace of logging slowed from a sprint to a crawl starting in the early 1990s.

In response, Congress in 2000 passed a bill that replaced most of the former timber receipts with direct payments from the U.S. Treasury.

Best known as "county payments," these have been vital sources of money for hundreds of counties in the ensuing years.

In Baker County the money — about $800,000 per year — has helped prevent major cutbacks in the county's road department.

As things stand today, the county payments program is finished.

Its end has provoked reactions in county courthouses that range from minor concern to predictions of bankruptcy.

Congress is considering two possible solutions.

One, proposed by Oregon representatives Greg Walden, Kurt Schrader and Peter DeFazio, focuses on 18 counties in Western and Southern Oregon.

The second, introduced by Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, would continue county payments, at reduced levels, for two years, after which the program would be replaced by trust funds that counties could tap.

We're skeptical of both plans, and for the same reason — their balance sheets rely, to some extent, on boosting logging on federal forests to raise money that goes to counties.

This is neither politically realistic nor, in many places, ecologically desirable.

To the first point, there's no reason to believe that Congress has the power to reverse the situation that has prevailed for two decades and suddenly get log trucks rolling toward new or re-opened sawmills.

The Northwest Forest Plan that President Clinton helped to broker in 1993 was supposed to ensure a steady, albeit reduced, volume of federal timber.

It didn't.

We've seen no evidence recently that the political and judicial clout of environmental groups, which have strived to maintain the status quo of the past 20 years, has waned appreciably.

As to the second point, although there's ample scientific evidence that logging can help to restore ailing forests, this cure, particularly in the drier forests such as those in Baker County, consists mainly of cutting the smaller, lower-value trees.

Even if the lumber market rebounds from its current doldrums, we don't believe the revenue from restorative logging would be sufficient to maintain the county payments program at anything near the level needed to prevent financial disaster for some counties.

But if logging can't solve this fiscal dilemma, what will?

For the answer, we quote Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. During a speech on the Senate floor this month, Merkley, referring to the county payments program, said it is "not an entitlement program. It is a commitment that this nation, our federal government, made to rural forest counties out of fairness and common sense."

The senator is right.

And the best example of the commitment that Merkley cited is neither the erstwhile county payments program, nor the older timber receipts system.

Rather, it's PILT. That acronym stands for "Payment In Lieu of Taxes."

This program, which started in 1976, gets right to the heart of the relationship between counties and the feds — that the value of federal land lies not solely in the amount of timber it can produce, nor the acres of grazing land or ounces of precious metals.

These vast swathes of land — almost 1 million acres in Baker County alone, nearly half the county's area — are valuable too for the vistas they bestow on visitors, for the habitat they supply to wildlife, for the clean water that flows through them.

Yet because the traditional way that counties get a share of that value — property taxes — is not an option with federal land, an alternative is needed.

What Congress calls this alternative — PILT, county payments or something new — is irrelevant.

But to borrow Merkley's term, that commitment must be met whether the federal forests within a county produce 10 million board-feet of timber per year, or none at all.