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Land | Environment

Helium Bill Could Carry Timber Payments To Southern Oregon Counties

Oregon’s Douglas County stands to gain $17 million from a bill authorizing the sale of federally owned helium to raise money to extend payments to timber-dependent counties.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved a one-year extension of Secure Rural Schools program as part of a larger bill authorizing the sale of helium from a federal reserve.

Douglas County Commissioner Susan Morgan said Thursday if the extension also wins approval in the House, it will help replenish the county’s budget reserves but would not solve the larger problem of the loss of timber revenues to Douglas County.

Morgan said the real long-term solution to the county’s budget woes lies with legislation U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, has introduced in the U.S. House. That legislation, included in H.R. 1526, would increase timber harvests on Oregon and California Railroad trust lands. The House passed the bill today and sent it to the Senate.

“I would much rather see the House bill become law because that is a permanent fix and that fix would benefit not only the counties’ budgets but also benefit the general welfare of Douglas County because it creates jobs,” Morgan said.

Douglas County commissioners dipped into county reserves to the tune of $44 million to balance its 2013-14 budget and avoid cuts in public safety and other programs. Still, the county is in better shape than Southern Oregon counties such as Josephine and Curry, where public safety budgets have been slashed due to lost timber revenues.

H.R. 1526 also includes an extension of Secure Rural Schools funding. It faces an uncertain future in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has said he plans to introduce a different timber management plan.

Under the helium bill, co-sponsored by Wyden, Secure Rural Schools funding would be extended for one year. Wyden initiated the program in 2000 to compensate rural counties for their declining shares of federal logging revenues. Since then, the program has brought more than $2.8 billion to 33 Oregon counties. The extension would bring them another $100 million.

“Selling the Federal Helium Reserve provides the money necessary to continue a program that has provided Oregon counties with money for schools, roads and law enforcement since 2000,” Wyden said. “At the same time, the United States is ensuring continued access to the federal helium supply, preventing a shock to the health care sector and other critical industries, including high-tech, that depend on helium.”

Helium is used in MRIs and in semiconductor and fiber-optics manufacturing. The Federal Helium Reserve supplies about 40 percent of domestic and 30 percent of world helium demand.

Association of Oregon Counties Executive Director Mike McArthur said the Secure Rural Schools extension in the helium bill is “an important step forward.”

“Today’s Senate action could provide counties with a bridge as Congress works towards comprehensive legislation to reform, update and streamline federal forest management laws,” McArthur said in a written statement.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley also issued a written statement in support of the helium bill, saying its Secure Rural Schools extension “is badly needed in Oregon.”

“Timber counties are already cut to the bone and since the lapse of county payments, they have had to cut back drastically on critical services like basic law enforcement and safety. We all agree that it’s time for a long-term plan to provide reliable timber harvests while protecting our water and ecosystems, but right now it is essential that we get a lifeline to struggling communities in Oregon,” Merkley said.

Merkley said he hopes the House will act quickly to pass the bill “so that Oregon’s communities can get relief as soon as possible.”

- You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or

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