The massive US Farm Bill, long debated, finally passed the House of Representatives Thursday in Washington, DC.
Counties in timber-producing states dependent on log harvest for revenue have been anxiously awaiting this news.
The old farm bill expired in 2012. Its replacement is 959 pages long and will cost approximately US$956.4 billion over 10 years. Of that, about US$2.3 billion is earmarked for federal timberlands; for everything from forestry programs to rural development, to research and development. There are programs for promoting farmers markets, selling off timber on federal lands, and even research into organic agriculture and citrus diseases.
For Oregon, where the seemingly never-ending saga of access to timberland for harvest — and revenue from such — continues to unfold, the Farm Bill extends for one year Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, which makes up for property taxes the government doesn’t pay. Oregon, with 31 million acres of federal land, received $US15.5 million last year, according to the Gazette Times Thursday. Nationwide, the PILT program has distributed US$6.3 billion since 1977. The 2014 payments will be a little larger than last year’s, about US$410 million nationwide, compared to US$400 million last year, according to a spokesperson for US Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR., this week. Due to loss of timber revenue and restricted federal funding, some Oregon counties have had to cut law enforcement and other basic services.
Ten Year Legislation
Another federal payments program for timber counties, known as Secure Rural Schools, is expiring after a one-year extension, leaving counties depending on timber harvests for revenue with no alternate sources of funding. The program reimburses counties for law enforcement, social services, transportation and other costs on federal lands, which do not pay property taxes. Most of the money goes to rural counties in western states.
Federal forests make up 60 per cent of Oregon’s forestland. Since 1989, timber harvests in those forests have dropped by 90 per cent, depressing rural economies leaving forests vulnerable to insects and fire.
For the US timber industry, the Farm Bill provides protection from lawsuits aimed at toughening the regulation of runoff from logging roads. The industry got a scare in 2010 when the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled — in an Oregon case involving the Tillamook State Forest — that the roads required federal Clean Water Act permits, said OregonLive Wednesday. The Supreme Court later overturned that ruling, but the Farm bill bars future lawsuits of this kind.
The Farm Bill also changes federal law to allow forest products to be included under the Department of Agriculture’s Biobased Markets Program, which provides incentives for federal government use of biobased products.
An amendment to the Farm Bill, from Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, and others, would permanently restore authorization for the US Forest Service and the US Bureau of Land Management to offer stewardship contracts, which are used to reduce wildfire danger, restore forest health, and harvest timber on federal forests. The authorization was due to expire in September. The contracts are widely used on federal forests in Oregon.
“This measure will provide the certainty the timber industry needs to keep the forestry jobs that are so crucial to rural Oregon. By maintaining the forestry infrastructure across the west, this bill will allow for restoration that is desperately needed to create healthier forests,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, in a prepared statement Wednesday. “This bill ends litigation over questions that have already been answered and allows federal agencies, conservation groups and timber companies to get back to work on improving the management of our federal forests.”
Another complicated timber harvest legislation issue in Oregon involves the old Oregon and California Railroad Revested Lands, known as the O&C Lands, which lie in a checkerboard pattern through eighteen counties of western Oregon. These lands contain more than 2.4 million acres of forests, recreation areas, cultural and historical resources, and wilderness. Most of the O&C lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
On December 31 Wyden introduced a bill that sets the stage for sweeping changes in the management of 2.1 million acres of federal forest in Western Oregon. The bill attempts to resolve decades of lawsuits over the Bureau of Land Management’s O&C timberlands in Western Oregon by designating some areas for conservation and others for timber harvest. It would limit the environmental review process for logging in some designated harvest areas, while guaranteeing protection for stands of trees over 120 years old.
Logging these forests historically provided a key source of revenue for county governments through profit-sharing from federal timber sales. Since 1953, revenues generated from the sale of forest products, usually timber, from the O&C lands have been divided thus: 25 per cent returned to the US Treasury, another 25 per cent retained by the administering Federal Agency, and the remaining 50 per cent given directly to the County where the O&C lands are located. The 25 per cent which is retained by the Federal Agencies is used to manage the O&C lands, including projects such as reforestation, road construction, recreation improvements, and fish and wildlife habitat enhancement.
“This new foundation will more than double our timber harvest across 18 timber counties and ensure that harvest continues for years to come. It uses the best available science to mimic natural processes and create healthier, more diverse forests,” Wyden said in a press release prior to his public appearance Tuesday in Salem with Gov. John Kitzhaber to unveil the plan.
The Democratic senator said his management plan for the forests would allow for the logging of at least 300 million board feet of timber a year, according to an analysis that was jointly produced by the BLM and Oregon State University forestry professor Norm Johnson.
Wyden chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That places him in a strategic position to move the bill forward, according to Jefferson Public Radio December 31. Wyden introduced the legislation in response to a proposal introduced by three Oregon representatives: Republican Greg Walden and Democrats Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader. Their proposal, which passed the House in September, transfers into a state-owned trust roughly 1 million acres of O&C forests. That House bill faces a veto threat from President Obama.
Dividing The Land: The bill places roughly half of the O&C lands in “forestry emphasis areas,” focused on producing timber harvests. The remaining forests would be managed for conservation. But in contrast to the House bill, Wyden would not give any federal land to the state to manage.
Ecological Logging: The secretary of the Interior Department would be required to calculate a sustained yield for the forestry emphasis areas and to aim to meet that target every year. Wyden estimates the yield would be about 300 million board feet.
For their part, DeFazio, along with Oregon Reps. Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader, have managed to pass a bill that would more than double timber harvests across the country and calls for placing about 1.6 million acres in a state-managed trust focused on timber production. DeFazio continued a series of forums in western Oregon last week, including a stop in Coos Bay on Thursday.