Federal aid that has provided a financial lifeline for timber-dependent counties in Oregon may soon start flowing again after a key congressional deal was announced Tuesday.
House Republican and Democratic leaders agreed to include the timber aid – which will pump about US$100 million a year into the economy in mostly rural parts of Oregon – in a must-pass bill to prevent deep cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors.
The deal to extend the aid for another two years appeared to end a political standoff that forced the program’s expiration last year. And it raised the prospect that schools and county governments might start getting the checks in the next few months.
Restoration of the aid, intended to help counties hard-hit by declines in federal logging, has been a major priority of Oregon members of Congress, who jostled to claim the credit.
Rep. Greg Walden, the state’s sole Republican in Congress and a member of the House GOP leadership, announced the agreement Tuesday morning.
“We need to change the forest policy” to allow more logging, Walden said Tuesday morning in a speech to the Public Lands Council, a group that represents ranchers.
“In the meantime, our rural schools, rural roads and emergency services need this funding,” Walden added. “This is a big win for the rural part of the country and certainly the district that I represent.”
Walden said he had help from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who put out his own statement explaining that he brought the Democratic leadership along. Both sides “came together to do what’s right for our struggling, economically distressed rural communities,” DeFazio said.
The timber payments initially approved by Congress in 2000 were seen as a way to help counties that had been hit hard by the steep decline of logging on federal lands – particularly in Western Oregon following the endangered species listing of the spotted owl in 1990.
Annual payments to Oregon counties and schools reached a high of more than US$250 million but had dwindled to US$107 million last year as the delegation repeatedly fought to keep the program alive.
Walden, DeFazio and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in the last Congress pushed legislation through the House aimed at boosting logging on federal forests in western Oregon managed by the BLM. The bill would have put 1.6 million acres into trust managed by the state under less-stringent environmental rules.
Wyden said that approach would never fly in the Senate – and he said the same is still the case with the Republicans in charge of the body.
“Setting aside environmental laws has always been a loser,” he said, arguing that Republicans still don’t have the votes they need in the Senate to do that. Wyden said he continues to work on his legislation that he believes could double harvests on O&C lands.