A contractor sorts logs on Oregon Board of Forestry land in southern Oregon. 

A contractor sorts logs on Oregon Board of Forestry land in southern Oregon. 

Oregon Department of Forestry

For 15 years, Congress wrote more than $3 billion in subsidy checks to Oregon counties that had experienced big drops in federal timber harvests.

That program stopped earlier this year.

But many county officials are actually not so sad the federal help expired.

Timber once drove the Oregon economy. In the 70s, the industry employed as many as 80,000 workers. In many western Oregon timber communities, local government operated largely on their share of the revenue from logging federal lands. 

Then came one shock after another that slashed at jobs. A deep recession in the early 80s. More efficient mills. And in 1990, federal authorities listed the northern spotted owl as a threatened species. That led to dramatic reductions of timber harvests on public lands.

By 2000, employment in the industry was down to around 40,000. The pain in rural Oregon was evident, where unemployment was high and incomes lagged far behind the Portland area.

Sen. Ron Wyden helped write a bill to give rural communities a new economic deal. The Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act allowed counties to claim a guaranteed pot of money, regardless of the size of nearby federal timber harvests.

Wyden recalled how desperate the counties were for the aid.

“You go out to rural Oregon,” Wyden said, “and they’ll tell you, ‘We are finding a world of hurt.  And if we didn’t have that money, it would have been much worse.”

Many hoped counties would use the aid to diversify their economies. But most just kept paying for basic services, like roads and jails, while waiting for logging revenue to bounce back. 

The subsidies were only temporary. 

But Wyden and other Oregon lawmakers used every trick in the book to keep them alive after they first expired in 2006.

“It has been a roller coaster,” Wyden said.  “I remember one year I was able to get the extra money because I was chairman of the Senate Energy Committee and we sold off the helium reserve.”

“It became like the Perils of Pauline,” added Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., whose Southwestern Oregon district was a major recipient of the aid. “Here comes the train.”

The program was extended five times, although the size of the checks dwindled by more than half.

Wyden’s office says the program produced $3.8 billion for Oregon counties over its lifetime. The nonprofit group, Headwaters Economics, says Secure Rural Schools offset some timber receipts and other aid, so the net boost to Oregon was $2.7 billion.

However you tally it, the final checks came in March. A last-ditch effort this month by Oregon senators for one more extension to the program failed. They hit a wall of opposition from House Republicans, including Oregon’s sole GOP congressman, Greg Walden.

Walden spokesman Andrew Malcolm said Republican leaders are tired of sending aid checks while Congress can’t agree on legislation to increase timber harvests. 

Every time the program was extended “it just gets harder and harder,” Malcolm said. “That’s why we need to reform federal forest policy.”

Here’s what might seem surprising: Elected officials in timber country aren’t heartbroken at the loss.  

Sentiment in favor of ending the subsidies is widely accepted in Oregon’s timber country, even among county officials who face large budget cuts.

“It was simply meant to be a bridge,” said Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde. 

“But right now, there’s no bridge to anything.  So, it went from a bridge to a bread line.”  

Hyde is president of the Association of O&C Counties, a group of 18 counties west of the Cascades containing federal forests held by the Bureau of Land Management. They’ve pushed hard for legislation aimed at increasing logging on those lands.

Tillamook County Commissioner Tim Josi agreed with Hyde.

“So long as we get a check from the Treasury Department,” Josi said, “it just takes the pressure off of the federal government to get those forests working again and develop forest management plans that actually work. And you know, we’re just getting tired of it, of being on the federal dole.”

It’s a bit harder to say this in the most financially strapped counties in the state.   Josephine County has cut sheriff patrols to almost nothing and struggles to keep its jail open.

Commissioner Simon Hare said he wants the federal aid program reauthorized.  But he admits all those years of federal payments helped keep voters from stepping up to the plate themselves. They saw new rounds of federal aid after being warned it was going away.

“We’re made out to be fibbers from the standpoint you said it wasn’t coming and then it did,” Hare said. 

Voters rejected a string of tax levies and Josephine County still has the lowest property tax rate in the state – 58 cents per $1,000 of value. In Multnomah County, by contrast, the rate is about $5 per $1,000.

Wyden has his own bill to set higher targets for federal timber harvests in western Oregon. But he said it’s unrealistic to expect timber to support county governments like it did decades ago.  

“We’re going to need to get the harvest up in a sustainable way and we’re going to need the safety net,” he said.  

Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild said he is skeptical a renewed logging push will revive these counties. He said they should have used their aid to find other economic drivers, like recreation.  

“This program was intended to be a transition system,” Pedery said. “Some used it that way and some didn’t. Unfortunately, I think the counties that are going to be hurt the most by this change are the ones who didn’t.”  

Many rural officials argue timber is really their only option for well-paid jobs. And they say more logging can revive their economies. Whatever the case, however, it’s hard to find anyone who expects another quick revival for the county timber payments.