Douglas County officials and Oregon’s Congressional delegation hailed the extension of Secure Rural Schools payments for two years as a victory last month, when the 2018 omnibus spending bill including the payments was passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.
Douglas County will gain about $25 million, maybe more, over two years because of that decision.
But Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman said there’s more to the story. He’s encouraged by the inclusion — for the first time — of rules allowing for more timber management on federal lands.
For Freeman, it’s the reward for years of lobbying by himself, and before him, longtime commissioner Doug Robertson.
The new rules don’t mandate additional timber harvests on federal lands, but they do, in Freeman’s words, give federal agencies additional “tools in the toolbox” that could make such harvests easier.
Secure Rural Schools legislation, originally introduced by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, was intended as a stop-gap measure to cover counties like Douglas that had historically paid for services like libraries and sheriff’s patrols with revenue sharing from federal timber harvests. Those harvests were dramatically scaled back in the 1990s, following the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species.
Since then, according to the Association of O&C Counties, the Bureau of Land Management has been spending $1,000 for every $200 it generates from timber harvests on federal O&C lands. And that’s despite the 1937 O&C Act specifically designating the land for timber harvests. The money from those harvests is to be split 50-50 with counties with O&C lands within their borders. The Forest Service also shares timber revenue — a smaller percentage of it — with the counties.
Freeman maintains federal forest growth means there’s plenty of timber to manage without giving up on recreation, clean air and water, and wildlife habitat.
“There are more trees than ever. There’s plenty to manage. There’s enough, like I said to Congress, for all of the above. There’s enough for everything,” Freeman said.
Robertson said the whole idea of Secure Rural Schools was the money was intended to be bridge funding.
“At the other side of the bridge was management, and we could never get there. That’s changed,” he said.
In part, it was the resistance of new Republican Congressional leadership to band-aid Secure Rural Schools payments that led to the new provisions in the omnibus package.
“The appetite to continue just to fund counties over and over and over just to do nothing was going away,” Freeman said.
Freeman credited U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, whose commitment to management reform paved the way for some of the changes included in the omnibus bill.
The new rules under the omnibus bill allow the Forest Service to harvest for wildfire resilience, using the best available science. It also allows harvests to create fuel and firebreaks.
“As these lands have become overgrown, without having large harvest units between sections of the land, you end up with no fire breaks, and this allows some of that work to be done,” Freeman said.
Importantly, the bill also allows for analyzing not just the impact of taking action, but also the impact of doing nothing, Freeman said.
The omnibus bill also creates a “fix” for what’s known as the “Cottonwood” decision, in which the federal courts said if a new species was listed as threatened or endangered, the most recent forest management plan would have to be reopened to address the newly listed species. Agencies could go through a five to eight year planning process, finally adopt a plan, and then immediately have to “go back through and do the whole thing all over again,” Freeman said.
The newly passed omnibus rules say as long as the plan is 15 years old or newer, it doesn’t have to be reopened. And the new rule applies not just to Forest Service land, but also to the O&C timberlands, and even the Coos Bay Wagon Road timberlands.
Another provision in the bill allows for federal timber dollars to be used to repair county roads and bridges that are used to access federal lands.
Yet another change is an expansion of allowed uses for Title III Secure Rural Schools funds. Under the rules in place before the omnibus bill passed, those funds could be used to reimburse search and rescue operations, but not for training, equipment or patrols. Now all those uses will be allowed.
With the rules in place before the omnibus bill’s passage, Freeman said the BLM could be harvesting far more on O&C lands than it is today. With the new rules, they could harvest even more. But there’s no guarantee they will. Ultimately, more harvests might not become a reality without a court ruling in favor of the O&C counties, which are currently suing the BLM in hopes of forcing the harvest of 500 million board feet a year on O&C lands.