Two pieces of legislation that will have an impact on Douglas County gained approval by the U.S. Senate last week.
One gets our full endorsement, the other leaves us with reservations. Meanwhile, we wait for another piece of legislation that could get the economy kicking again in rural Western Oregon counties.
The positive step is the extension of timber safety net payments. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee endorsed legislation to continue subsidies to timber counties that have struggled since environmental restrictions dramatically reduced logging on federal lands.
The Secure Rural Schools Act expired this year, causing Douglas County to dig into its reserves to balance the 2013-14 budget it passed Wednesday. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, who became chairman of the Senate committee in January, has pledged to keep the timber subsidies coming until a permanent solution can be found for managing the federal forests that make up about 50 percent of Oregon’s land base.
The payments, if passed by the House, would be 5 percent lower than before, but would still net Oregon about $100 million.
The Senate also moved forward the Oregon Treasures Act to protect wilderness areas and create more Wild and Scenic Rivers. It would designate 30,500 acres as wilderness around the Devil’s Staircase, a rare and remote forested area with stair-step waterfalls about 10 miles northeast of Reedsport.
We would like to see protection for the Devil’s Staircase and other areas important to maintaining habitat for threatened and rare species, but we still question the need for a separate bill for the action.
A bipartisan plan proposed by three federal lawmakers for managing the Oregon & California Railroad lands includes similar protections. But it balances the need for wilderness protection with the need for jobs, timber harvests and stability in county funding.
With some Western Oregon counties on the brink of bankruptcy, the funding issues take the forefront over the long-sought protection of sensitive areas.
The O&C proposal by Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader hasn’t gained support from Wyden. His spokesman, Tom Towslee, says Wyden doesn’t believe Congress would support moving management of the lands from federal to state oversight.
Timber harvests would then be subject to state forestry rules, but Towslee says the stricter federal environmental laws must remain in place. Towslee says Wyden remains confident that he can come up with a plan that will increase timber harvests — because he knows the importance of a strong timber industry to Oregon — while keeping sensitive areas protected.
Wyden points to the compromise worked out between the industry and environmentalists in Eastern Oregon as the blueprint. He said talks between the groups have only recently begun, so it’s too early to say how the potential legislation will allow timber harvests to move forward if they’re subject to the same laws that have shut down timber sales in the past.
Wyden’s plan for the O&C lands is expected to be rolled out sometime this summer. Our hopes are high, but they’re marred by skepticism and impatience.