By Jay Bozieviech
As a vocal supporter of Lane County’s successful public safety levy, I was encouraged to see so many citizens step up to support our local law enforcement and help keep violent offenders in jail.
However, as I testified to the Oregon House of Representatives, the levy doesn’t offer a permanent solution for stable revenues for essential services, nor does it assure a stronger economy in the future.
While voters approved an important but temporary lifeline for public safety programs, it is critical for Congress to provide a comprehensive solution that resolves the annual uncertainty of county timber payments.
I am hopeful that Congress will continue to work on solutions that restore active management to our Federal forestlands, including the unique O&C lands that, in the past, created jobs and a thriving economy for communities and reliable funding for county governments.
The Federal O&C Act of 1937 specifically set aside 2.4 million acres of these Federally-owned forest lands for the economic benefit of 18 Western Oregon counties. Unfortunately, the Federal Government has failed to keep its promise to O&C counties, and litigation and conflicting regulations have only made the situation worse.
When timber was still being harvested on O&C lands Lane County alone received around $17 million annually. In today’s dollars, this equates to about $30 million per year. To put this in perspective, the recently passed public safety levy will generate less than half that revenue without adding significantly to jobs. The levy, while desperately needed, is only a “Band-Aid” fix to a serious and long-term problem.
Rural Lane County citizens cannot afford to fund public safety without some change in a rural economy devastated by the lack of federal forest management. One result of this devastation is that 80% of students in Mapleton and Oakridge school districts are on free or reduced lunch programs. Poverty and unemployment consume government and rural communities’ resources without adding jobs that could pay to fund essential services.
Lane County has a large population base, a diversified economy and other attributes such as a world-class university. Other O&C counties are not so lucky. Many of these rural communities once thrived with vibrant timber-based economies, but now suffer from higher unemployment and higher poverty levels.
It’s easy to scorn the voters in other counties who recently rejected public safety levies, but criticism of these Oregonians reveals ignorance of the serious challenges of funding services where many people don’t have jobs and can’t afford higher taxes. Though Lane County voters approved the levy, I believe it is wrong to single out and penalize counties that are not as prosperous as we are.
It is a grave mistake to ignore the importance of renewable natural resources that exist in our O&C forests. Sustainable management of these resources will benefit both our economy and local governments. It is heartening that members of Oregon’s Federal delegation understand this and that our Governor is also advocating for changes in Federal policy. It’s great to see they are willing to cross party lines to find a permanent solution.
While the bipartisan Walden/Schrader/DeFazio “O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act” remains on the table, we have also seen Sen. Ron Wyden release a “framework” of possible legislation.
I hope our delegation continues to work together on a bill that helps rural communities across all O&C counties. I believe we have a solution that protects environmentally sensitive lands while allowing more timber harvesting where it is environmentally sustainable. Thanks to an existing Federal law prohibiting the export of raw logs from Federal lands, wood products from O&C lands would be processed and milled by workers here at home, thus creating jobs that pay taxes to fund county services.
By putting people back to work in the woods we can lift more rural communities out of poverty. Creating jobs combined with reliable timber receipts will generate more tax revenues to sustain vital services.
Now that the public safety levy has been approved and Lane County has some short term stability, we need Congress to pass real solutions to help fund these services over the long term.
Jay Bozievich – West Lane County Commissioner