The federal government is finally listening.
That’s how Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman felt during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where he visited with officials from the Interior Department.
Freeman, who is also president of the Association of O&C Counties, attended a National Association of Counties conference in late February and early March. He was there to raise awareness of the challenges Douglas and other rural Oregon counties face when it comes to federal land management.
On Freeman’s mind was the Bureau of Land Management’s unwillingness to harvest timber at a level he argues is required by the 1937 O&C Act. The O&C Act regulates land once owned by the Oregon and California Railroads, but now belongs to the federal government. It forms a checkerboard pattern with private timberlands, and it was originally set aside expressly for timber harvests, with the receipts to be split 50-50 between the federal government and the counties. Locally, that money formed the backbone of the county’s general fund and paid for services from sheriff’s patrols to the library.
During his recent trip, Freeman had a rare opportunity to share those concerns with some of the nation’s top policymakers. After expressing disagreement with a BLM official who presented the agency’s relationship with the counties as wonderful, Freeman received a call from her. She asked him, “Would you like to have a meeting at the Department of the Interior with the people that work on this?”
Naturally, he said yes.
And that’s how Freeman found himself in a room with 10 people, including Acting BLM Director Kristin Bail, the national O&C forester, two members of now Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s transition staff (Zinke was in confirmation hearings at the time), and the person who had been running the Interior Department during the transition.
And they were listening.
“I got an entire hour with these people, which is unheard of,” Freeman said.
During that hour, Freeman described the challenge facing the O&C counties, like Douglas County, and how severely their budgets have been impacted since the BLM stopped actively harvesting those timberlands. In its heyday, Douglas County alone received more than $30 million as its share of timber revenue from those lands. Once the harvests all but stopped due to concerns about spotted owl habitat and a host of conflicting legislation about timberland management, the counties received first safety net and later Secure Rural Schools funds. Even those have dried up now. Last year, Douglas County received $4.7 million in O&C timber revenue.
It doesn’t make sense, Freeman said, for the federal government either. It’s spending $87 million more each year to manage those lands than the income it’s producing, even though the purpose of those lands was to generate revenue for both the federal government and the counties. Before 1995, the government always generated more money than it spent on those lands.
“I kind of joked around and said this could possibly be one of your most expensive national parks. It’s sort of funny when you say it that way, but that’s what it’s become,” he said.
What hasn’t changed, Freeman said, is there’s plenty of timber there.
“In 1937, there was 50 billion board feet of wood on this land. Through 2012, we harvested 50 billion board feet, did another inventory, and there was 73 billion board feet. So there’s more wood on that land now than any time in recorded history,” he said.
Another main point he addressed was fire management. He said it makes no sense that burnt wood is left standing, even if it was in an area that had been planned for harvest.
This visit to D.C. was Freeman’s third, and it’s the one he’s felt the best about. Under the previous administration, the former secretary of the interior had been the CEO of REI, so Freeman believes she was focused more on the value of recreation and biased against harvesting timber. With Zinke and his team in charge, Freeman believes there are people in place who understand the counties’ challenges, and want to help solve their problems.
Since his D.C visit, Freeman said he’s received several phone calls and a bunch of emails from the federal government asking for clarification about the things he talked about during that hour-long visit with top officials.
“I actually feel like...the people that we’re talking to back there have a genuine interest in what we have to say,” he said.