BEND, Ore. - Central Oregon counties might need to find new ways of funding themselves, as a federal program that has made up for loss of federal timber revenues was not reauthorized for this year, costing them millions of dollars.
Since timber production in Oregon declined a few decades ago, the federal government has provided funds for counties that were once dependent on timber. The program is called Secure Rural Schools, and Congress did not reauthorize it for this year.
That means overall timber payments to counties by the Forest Service will fall to just 25 percent of last year's total revenue distribution. The decline in SRS revenue, which represents 5-10 percent of Deschutes County's overall revenues, is a greater percentage for Jefferson and Crook counties -- and for all of them means less money to count on.
"That means a loss in our ability to do capital projects and address other needs within the county road system," Deschutes County Road Department Director Chris Doty said Tuesday.
But not all Central Oregon government officials see the decline in federal funds as a bad thing. They point instead to the need for generating local revenue.
"It's a shame we don't have resource-intensive industries or other ways to create the dollars," Deschutes County Commissioner Tony DeBone said, "because these dollars are coming from the federal government to the counties."
The reduced payments to Oregon counties from the U.S. Forest Service this year are projected at around $7 million. In contrast, those counties received $60 million last year.
Sen. Ron Wyden said Tuesday’s announcement of reduced Forest Service payments to Oregon spotlight the need for Congress to act quickly to reauthorize Secure Rural Schools funding.
Congressional failure to reauthorize SRS funding that’s brought almost $4 billion since 2000 to Oregon’s timber counties and schools means the Forest Service must revert to making payments that provide just 25 percent of the federal timber sale revenue from national forest lands generated in each county.
“Oregon counties depend on SRS funding to help pay for good schools, safe roads and reliable law enforcement,” Wyden said. “While I am glad the 25 percent payments came through, these reduced funds highlight the importance of restoring the robust support that SRS has long provided. I will keep working on a long-term solution to give rural counties in Oregon and across the country certainty to plan their budgets and provide crucial resources to their citizens.”
The 25 percent Forest Service SRS payments to Oregon are projected to total slightly more than $7 million. In contrast, Oregon received $95.2 million in the most recent round of SRS payments, which includes payments from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Those payments were in March 2016. The BLM projected payments for the coming year to Oregon counties are at 50 percent of prior levels, meaning the $35 million provided last year are expected to be just $18.8 million this year.
Combined, the Forest Service and BLM payments to Oregon counties that totaled $95.2 million last year are projected to total only $25.8 million this year.
Wyden co-authored the original SRS legislation in 2000 with then-Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.