Timber counties plan uncertain in Congress

Timber counties plan uncertain in Congress
File - In this July 16, 2005 file photo shows logs piled into log decks at the Menasha Forest Products in North Bend, Ore. Two Oregon Democrats in Congress and a Republican are pushing legislation that would significantly increase logging in their state, while at the same time protecting old-growth areas. The three say their idea will rescue counties facing economic crisis because of the expiration of the so-called federal timber payments. (AP Photo/The World, Lou Sennick, File)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) - More details have come out about a proposal to increase logging on certain federal lands in Oregon to help struggling timber counties, but the idea's future in Congress remains uncertain.

The proposal has yet to become an actual bill, and its pathway to the House floor — as part of a bill that would suspend environmental laws to vastly increase logging on national forests nationwide — remains blocked in a House committee with no prospects in the greener Senate.

Timber counties across the country have been getting a subsidy from the federal government since 2000 to make up for timber revenues that plummeted when logging on federal lands was cut more than 80 percent to protect habitat for the northern spotted owl and salmon.

But those subsidies have run out, and Oregon Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader have pushed a proposal to help Oregon counties. It would set up a special trust of some of the 3 million acres overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Western Oregon and allow increased logging there.

DeFazio released maps this week laying out which square-mile pieces of the checkerboard of land the bureau manages would go into the special timber trust, and which would be transferred to the U.S. Forest Service to protect stands of old growth and fish and wildlife habitat.

No tally on the acreage of each part is available yet. But the maps show a larger piece of the timber trust in the Willamette Valley, and a larger portion of the old growth and fish and wildlife habitat in southern Oregon. Backers said the plan remained open to negotiation.

DeFazio said Friday that he has not been able to get the House Resources Committee to move on the proposal, despite his efforts to address the committee's concerns that it amounts to an earmark, which is not allowed.

"They just keep putting us off," DeFazio said from his home in Springfield, Ore. "We've been ready to go forward for quite some time."

DeFazio has been trying to attach the proposal to a bill offered by House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., which requires the Forest Service sell enough timber to generate $500 million for timber counties and gives the secretary of agriculture the power to ignore environmental laws to do it.

But there has been no official estimate on how much money the federal government would have to spend to hold timber sales that would generate that much revenue. Counties with national forests within their borders get 5 percent of the revenues from selling timber off those lands.

A Hastings aide said in an email that while there was not yet a resolution, the congressman remained committed to working on a solution.

If the Hastings bill were to pass the House, it would have no chance in the Senate, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"With all these provisions that simply toss aside long-held core environmental laws, it's just going to be a nonstarter," Wyden said from Washington, D.C.

Wyden urged the House to focus its efforts on passing a one-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools Act, which the Senate passed. It would continue the subsidy payments to timber counties, giving Congress more time to come up with a long-term solution.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.