Although there is little disagreement federal timber subsidies are vital to Southern Oregon, those vying for the chance to unseat U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., differ on how to best avert the counties' looming cash crunch.
Independent candidate John Frohnmayer of Corvallis said it makes little sense for the federal government to manage the 2.4 million acres of former Oregon-California Railroad lands only to send money back to timber-dependent counties, such as Jackson and Josephine.
He suggested instead that the federally managed timberlands in Oregon be placed in a public trust, run by a combination of county officials, timber interests and environmentalists for the financial benefit of local communities.
"We need to think broadly on this subject or otherwise we're going to be ping-ponging back and forth to the federal government, and the uncertainty is ultimately going to be detrimental to Southern Oregon," Frohnmayer said.
While he doesn't support going back to the logging heydays of the 1970s, he said increasing the timber cut to a "sustainable yield" while ensuring that the forest is preserved ought to be part of the broader federal funding solution.
"Am I am environmentalist? Yes. But do I recognize that Oregon has to have an economy? Yes, I do," said Frohnmayer, an original board member of 1000 Friends of Oregon, one of the state's leading land-use conservation groups.
The timber subsidies, which began flowing to Jackson and 17 other Western Oregon counties in 1937, are intended to backfill what is lost in local property taxes because the OC lands do not generate local revenues.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the forests, splits with the counties the revenue it receives from modest logging on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
However, after Oregon's timber industry slowed and logging payments to counties dwindled in the wake of the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, Congress approved The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act in 2000 to compensate the counties for the additional lost revenue.
Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley of Portland, the presumed Democratic front-runner in the Senate contest, said when the federal government restricted logging in the 1990s and agreed to make the county timber payments, Washington entered into a "social contract" with timber counties that should not be ignored more than it has.
Merkley suggested a modest logging increase could be a boon for cash-strapped rural counties, an idea that previously has drawn stiff opposition from conservationists, who argue that doing so would threaten the state's remaining old growth forests.
"It is time to take another look at the resource management side to see if there is a productive way of increasing the cut and matching that with the environmental issues," Merkley said.
The timber subsidies, which Congress begun paying more than 700 counties in 39 states, has been used locally to fund such things as road construction, public safety programs and library services.
Congress, last year, came close to eliminating the payments, but opted instead to give counties a one-year extension, which ends Sept. 30.
Because of the 2006 lapse in funding, Jackson County commissioners tightened the county's belt, which entailed shuttering the county's library system on April 6 and delaying more than $4 million in road construction projects.
President Bush had proposed a five-year renewal of the county timber payments, but his plan would have cut the subsidy checks in half and depended on the sale of up to 300,000 acres of federal forestlands to pay for it.
The president's proposal was met with stiff opposition from both sides of the aisle and eventually jettisoned. Now, Congress is considering a five-year extension, which Merkley said is crucial if local communities are able to plan financially for their futures.
"We need at least a five-year extension so we don't leave the counties in limbo without a roadmap to plan for the future," Merkley said.
Under a proposed funding formula, Oregon's timber counties would receive would receive another full year of federal payments then see a 10 percent annual decrease for five years before the funding is eliminated.
Steve Novick, also competing for the Democratic nomination, said it is only fair for the federal government to backfill local coffers for lost property taxes.
Novick goes a step further than Merkley by calling for a permanent extension of the timber subsidies program.
"The county payments is really small potatoes, but Congress is justifiably worried about making the books balance," Novick said. "I will be a deficit hawk in the Senate and will be willing to go out on a limb to promote revenue-raising and spending reduction options."
To help pay for a permanent extension, Novick pledged to seek an increase in the capital gains tax and said that lawmakers ought to reconsider investing in the International Space Station and the "exotic weapons" systems that the United States has bought since the Cold War but now "serve little purpose except to help make defense contractors rich."
helping to curb some government spending, Novick said when he stands up in the Senate to call for a permanent extension his colleagues would look on him with "more favor" because he will be "helping them to solve the larger (budgetary) problem."
covers politics for the Daily Tidings. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Timber subsidies a priority for state candidates