Sen. Ron Wyden speaks during a meeting at Roseburg Forest Products in Dillard in 2015.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced legislation Thursday intended to provide financial security for rural counties that have been hit hard by decreased federal timber harvests.

The loss of harvest money has been partially made up for in recent decades by stop-gap Secure Rural Schools payments. Those payments have shrunk over time and have always been temporary, creating uncertainty each time they come up for renewal. Wyden co-authored the Secure Rural Schools legislation in 2000. The program was originally intended as a temporary Band-Aid until a more permanent solution could be found.

The Forest Management for Rural Stability Act introduced Thursday offers one such solution. Under it, an endowment fund would be created, allowing regular payments to counties to become permanent. Wyden said the new approach would end the “financial roller coaster” rural counties have ridden to an end.

“Without a permanent fiscal solution, forested counties in Oregon and across the country will continue to slide into financial uncertainty,” Wyden said in a written statement. “Oregonians will continue to be left with fewer teachers and law enforcement officers, forced to close libraries, and unable to repair broken bridges and roads,” Wyden said in a written statement.

Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman, who is also the president of the Association of Oregon and California Counties, issued a statement Thursday praising the bill.

“This is a big step forward. We are grateful to Senator Wyden for taking the lead and proposing this important measure,” he said.

The Association of O&C Counties issued a statement Thursday that said the uncertainty created by congressional haggling over Secure Rural Schools renewals had been difficult for county leaders attempting to create accurate budgets.

Freeman said the certainty offered by the Wyden proposal would be a good thing.

“The payment levels under this bill would not equal levels historically received from shared timber receipts, but the predictability and certainty this bill would produce would really help counties facing hard budget choices,” Freeman said.

According to the Association of O&C Counties, it will be politically difficult for Wyden and Crapo to win passage because Congress would probably need to authorize spending between $7 and $8 billion to start the endowment fund. The bill also directs the counties’ share of timber harvest receipts into an endowment fund. Counties would receive payments from the fund’s earnings.

Reporter Carisa Cegavske can be reached at 541-957-4213 or ccegavske@nrtoday.com.

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Senior Reporter

Carisa Cegavske is the senior reporter for The News-Review. She can be reached at 541-957-4213 or by email at ccegavske@nrtoday.com. Follow her on Twitter @carisa_cegavske

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