A U.S. Senate committee hearing last week made clear that payments to counties, such as Douglas County, with large tracts of federal land have strong bipartisan support.
What remains unclear is how to make those payments unnecessary.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden presided over the Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on programs that compensate — only partly — counties for federal policies that have locked up traditional sources of local taxes and jobs.
Wyden repeatedly said timber harvests should be increased. But he said federal lands can’t be sold nor “bedrock” environmental laws compromised.
He expressed concern for Oregon’s timber counties. But his prescription for ending the pain — streamline bureaucracy, promote tourism and develop biomass — doesn’t adequately address the problem of log-starved mills.
Other senators made more telling remarks.
Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski looked at Wyden and noted his comment that Congress won’t stand for giving up federal lands. “Maybe that’s true, but, boy, oh boy, we’ve got to do something,” she said.
Murkowski and other senators, including Wyden, asked Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials what the agencies could do right now to increase timber harvests.
The answers were mostly bureaucratic, anecdotal, vague and not hopeful. Sequestration budget cuts will delay timber sales, they said. “It looks like we have an excuse to do even less,” Murkowski grumbled.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell did mention plans to thin forests, while BLM Deputy Assistant Secretary Pam Haze referred to the agency’s three pilot projects in Southern Oregon.
Even these mild measures are opposed by environmental groups, which are working to stop the pilot projects and prevent the thinning of overgrown federal forests in eastern Douglas County.
The constant litigation by conservation groups makes us pessimistic about Wyden’s strategy of building a “broad coalition with buy-in from all sides.”
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., cut to the heart of the issue and bluntly said federal polices must change.
Murkowski and Barrasso also indicated the federal safety net is a poor substitute for economic activity.
“The future of counties should not be dependent on the uncertainties of the federal government budget,” Murkowski said. “The federal government is broke here. We can’t continue to pay counties to not utilize their lands within their boundaries.”
Wyden said he will continue working on a “two-track approach”: extend the safety net and work on increasing timber harvests. He said some people want a one-track approach: increase logging.
Actually, the Association of O&C Counties also wants a two-track approach: fundamentally change how federal timberlands are managed and phase out federal payments to O&C counties.
This is a true two-track approach, not a road to more dead-end hearings.