Members of Congress from timber country came through Friday with a promised one-year extension of federal payments to rural counties dominated by federal lands.
They are now turning their attention to the thornier problem of how to generate a steady stream of federal revenue for rural counties that were rolling in cash during the logging booms of the 1970s but have fallen on hard times since protections for fish and wildlife in danger of extinction forced sharp cutbacks on logging on national forests in the 1990s.
Congress authorized the one-time distribution of $346 million to 700 rural counties in 41 states. Oregon gets $100 million of it, California $39.3 million, Idaho $27.4 million, Washington $21.3 million and Montana $20.4 million.
A 31 percent reduction from funding levels in 2010, the money is the last anyone expects to see from the Secure Rural Schools Act, which since 2000 has provided $3 billion to rural counties to make up for their declining shares of federal logging revenues.
"This is obviously a lifeline, but not a solution," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. "It is getting very, very, very difficult to fund this program, and frankly the local governments are frustrated at the sort of yo-yo effect they have go through depending on direct payments from Congress."
The issue stems from the long-standing practice of the federal government sharing a portion of the money made from cutting timber to the counties where the timber is located.
Three bills designed to increase logging on federal lands have been floating around the Republican-controlled House, but none has won the Congressional Budget Office favorable rating required to get a floor vote, and their prospects in the Democratic-controlled Senate appear dim.
One bill focuses on Oregon alone. It would turn over 2.6 million acres from the so-called O&C lands in Western Oregon to a trust and log them under state forestry rules to provide maximum revenues to Oregon counties. Developed by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., it is also backed by Walden and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
Another from Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, would extend nationwide the same principal of turning federal forests over to trusts that could log it under less-stringent state forestry laws.
A third from House Resources Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., would require the U.S. Forest Service to sell enough timber to generate $500 million for timber counties and give the secretary of agriculture the power to ignore environmental laws to do it.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the father of the Secure Rural Schools Act and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on public lands, said he did not know yet what form that long-term solution would take.
"I think the instant your central policy is that you are going to say the states are going to take control over federal lands, you've got a challenge on your hands," he said. "I'd rather look to something that can build a more natural coalition, which is to have people who use and extract from public lands and in effect take a creative approach that doesn't prejudge any one solution."
Meanwhile, conservation groups warned that at currently low timber prices, the federal government could not sell enough timber to pay timber counties what they want without returning to pre-1994 logging levels that threatened the extinction of the northern spotted owl and salmon.
"To try to match the revenues they used to get when we clear-cut two square miles a week of old-growth forest and timber prices were high, ain't gonna happen," said environmental consultant Andy Kerr, author of a report arguing that thinning projects designed to restore ecological health could increase timber production from federal lands in the Northwest.